BEIRUT – After five weeks of battle, Syrian government troops captured a strategic town near Damascus, cutting an arms route for rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad's regime, state media and activists said Thursday.
By taking the town of Otaybah, east of the capital, the army has dealt a major setback to opposition forces, who in the past months have made gains near the city they eventually hope to storm.
With fresh supplies of weapons from foreign backers, the rebels have recently seized military bases and towns south of the capital in the strategically important region between Damascus and the border with Jordan, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) away.
The regime has largely kept the rebels at bay in Damascus, although opposition fighters control several suburbs of the capital from which they have threatened the heart of the city, the seat of Assad's power. Last month government troops launched a massive campaign to repel the rebel advances near the capital, deploying elite army units to the rebellious Damascus suburbs and pounding rebel positions with airstrikes.
The director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said government troops regained control of Otaybah late Wednesday.
State-run SANA news agency said Thursday that the army has "restored complete control" over Otaybah. The official news services also said Assad's troops "discovered a number of tunnels which were used by terrorists to move and transfer weapons and ammunitions."
The regime and state media refer to rebels as terrorists and accuse them of being part of a foreign plot seeking to destroy Syria.
"It's a huge victory for the regime, and a big blow to the opposition that is now in danger of losing other towns and villages around Damascus," Abdul-Rahman said of the army's campaign.
On Thursday, the army was already capitalizing on the territorial gains, pounding southern suburbs of Damascus including the long-contested Daraya with artillery and air strikes, according to the Observatory. The group relies on a network of activists on the ground that also reported fierce clashes between rebels and army troops to the east of the capital.
The army's offensive to dislodge rebel fighters from neighborhoods ringing Damascus is part of the government's broader campaign to secure central provinces of Hama and Homs, and areas along the Lebanese border. The region is of strategic value to Assad's regime because it links Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria's Alawites and also home to the country's two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus.
Syria's regime is dominated by the president's minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam — while the rebels are mostly from the country's Sunni majority. Assad's major allies, the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group and Iran, are both Shiite.
Otaybah is located on a road linking Damascus to its international airport, along which rebels have been transporting weapons and other supplies from neighboring Jordan. The capital's surrounding towns and neighborhoods have been opposition strongholds during the 2-year-old conflict.
Losing control of the town will make the defense of rebel enclaves in southern suburbs such as Douma, Harasta and others very difficult, Abdul-Rahman said. The loss of the arms supply route is a major blow to opposition forces trying to overthrow Assad.
The Syrian conflict started with largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime in March 2011 but eventually turned into a civil war.
The fighting has exacted a huge toll on the country, killing more than 70,000 people, laying waste to cities, towns and villages and forcing more than a million people to flee their homes and seek refuge abroad. Millions have also been displaced inside Syria.
International aid agencies have been pleading for funds to help refugees in neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon. They have also been asking the Syrian government to allow aid convoys into the country and facilitate access to the area inside cities and towns that have been affected by fighting.
The latest damage to the country's rich cultural heritage came on Wednesday, when the minaret of the landmark 12th century Umayyad Mosque in the northern city of Aleppo was destroyed during fighting in the old walled city.