March 9, 2014 - Inside Syria : Syria: A human tragedy
March 9, 2014 - Nuns kidnapped by rebels in Syria freed
March 5, 2014 by Faisal Itani and Nathaniel Rosenblatt
The key to ending the crisis in Syria is a better understanding of local players and power dynamics. By viewing the conflict through a local prism, the United States and its Western allies can help build a coherent, capable, and legitimate opposition, which is an essential ingredient for any political transition or even negotiations.
Read the Issue Brief (PDF)
In a new Atlantic Council issue brief, Zooming in on Syria: Adapting US Policy to Local Realities, Resident Fellow Faysal Itani and Senior Analyst for Caerus Associates Nathaniel Rosenblatt contend that the United States has repeatedly failed to realize its goal of a political transition in Syria because of its narrow focus on summits and high-level diplomacy as the sole means of ending the conflict. Itani and Rosenblatt argue that in order to bring about such a change, there must first be a coalition of local actors inside the country who are powerful enough to fight against the Assad regime and negotiate on behalf of Syrians at the national level.
According to Itani and Rosenblatt, the ad hoc nature of the Syrian uprising and misguided support from external allies has hindered the opposition’s ability to form a civilian-military cooperative body that could ably govern and regulate military action. The rebellion’s ensuing fragmentation means there is no opposition actor with the legitimacy, agency, and capability to negotiate at international summits, such as the Geneva II negotiations, which has been the focal point of US efforts to end the crisis in Syria.
Instead, Itani and Rosenblatt argue that in order to achieve political transition, the United States’ policy aim in Syria should be focused on helping an existing rebel group or coalition defeat or absorb its competitors, dominate territory, and emerge as a credible and empowered negotiator for the opposition. This shift in policy requires that the United States:
- Work with local players by identifying, arming, training, funding, and advising select individuals and groups
- Pursue military and financial assistance to the opposition, as well as other strategies of support, in addition to negotiations
- Zoom in on the conflict by tracking and analyzing social, military and political developments and dynamics
- Use ceasefires as valuable opportunities to aid the local population, but recognize that they are local phenomena and not an indication of progress towards resolving the conflict
Jdaydet Yabouss, March 9, 2014 by Sam Dagher
Thirteen Syrian nuns and three other women held captive by al Qaeda-linked rebels for nearly three months have been released and are on their way home, Christian leaders said Sunday.
A Lebanese security official with knowledge of the negotiations said the head of Qatari intelligence was facilitating the release. A pro-regime Syrian businessman said he had negotiated with the Nusra Front rebel group for the captives’ freedom and that their main demand was the release of 138 detainees in regime prisons, including foreign fighters.
The nuns were abducted along with other women in early December from their monastery in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula north of the Syrian capital Damascus. They were taken to the nearby rebel bastion of Yabroud, near the Lebanese border.
Christian leaders said the nuns were in the process of being moved Sunday from Yabroud to the pro-rebel town of Arsal across the border in Lebanon. From there, they were expected to return to Syria through the Jdaydet Yabouss border crossing about 20 miles west of Damascus. A crowd was waiting on the Syrian side of the crossing for their arrival.
The area surrounding Yabroud has seen heavy clashes in recent weeks between rebels and pro-regime forces, including the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah. Because of the fighting in the area, the nuns had to go through Lebanon to return home.
The Lebanese security official with knowledge of the negotiations said the head of Qatari intelligence was on the Lebanese border with Syria facilitating the release.
"We’re hoping Qatar can help because of their good relations with the rebels," the security official said. The wealthy Gulf state of Qatar is a major political and financial backer of Syrian rebel groups.
The Britain-based opposition group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said a Qatari intelligence official helped broker the women’s release. The Observatory confirmed that 13 nuns and three other women who lived at the monastery were freed by rebels Sunday and will be handedover to Syrian clergy on the Syrian side by Lebanese security officials and the Qatari intelligence officer who was involved.
George Haswani, a Yabroud native and pro-regime businessman living in Damascus, said he was in negotiations with the al Qaeda-linked rebel group Nusra Front up until a week ago. Their main demand was the release of 138 detainees in regime prisons, including foreign fighters from Iraq, Qatar and other countries. Mr. Haswani was among those waiting for the nuns at the border crossing.
Bishop Luke al Khoury from Syria’s Greek Orthodox church, who was also waiting the border, said members of his church were in regular contact with the nuns by telephone and that rebels were asking for “unrealistic and impossible demands” but he didn’t offer specifics.
A Syrian activist in Arsal who said he met with a member of the kidnappers three weeks ago said that they want money for their release. He said he didn’t know how much they asked for.
Bishop Khoury, a staunch regime supporter, said the military operations in Yabroud forced the rebels to release the nuns.
"In my opinion, what the Syrian Arab army achieved in the Yabroud area and its surroundings is what made the completion of this deal very easy," he said.
Flita’s rough terrain and rock shelters have provided a natural fortification for the rebels from artillery shelling and airstrikes. Photo: Basma Atassi
Qalamoun, March 8, 2014 by Basma Atassi
In a tiny village perched in the folds of one of Syria’s highest mountains, a rebel commander sits behind the steering wheel of his parked pick-up truck, listening for the first time to an anthem created by his enemies vowing to give him and his comrades “dark days”.
Safwan Ouda had covered his vehicle with mud to camouflage it from the fighter jets of President Bashar al-Assad’s air force. His village, Flita, was once mostly known for its drug trade, but is now at the centre of a decisive battle in this juncture of the Syrian conflict.
It lies on a supply route between Lebanon and Yabroud, the largest rebel stronghold in the Qalamoun mountains.
Ouda and his battalion have found themselves at the heart of a conflict that has taken on broader regional and sectarian dimensions. The Sunni village is facing an onslaught from Assad’s troops backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah - and its propaganda machine.
Beware, the army of terrorists, the time of defeat has passed. We destroyed the army of Jews, now it’s your time in Yabroud.
"Seal your victory in Yabroud",Hezbollah propaganda anthem
"Beware, the army of terrorists, the time of defeat has passed. We destroyed the army of Jews, now it’s your time in Yabroud," booms the bombastic anthem, created by a Hezbollah supporter, from Ouda’s smartphone.
The 29-year-old former military officer, who defected from the army in 2012, placed his hand under his bearded chin as he listened attentively, then calmly said: “The song is a pathetic attempt to raise their crushed morale.”
The song, "Seal Your Victory in Yabroud" , has gone viral on social media. It was released to coincide with the beginning of the Syrian army’s offensive to take over the remaining rebel-held areas in the Qalamoun mountains, positioned strategically between Damascus and Homs.
But three weeks ago, when regime troops tried to advance into Flita, dozens of rebel fighters fended off the soldiers by mounting a Concours anti-tank missile launcher on a hill and firing at them. No subsequent ground offensives were attempted.
Flita’s altitude - more than 2,000 metres above sea level - and its rough terrain and rock shelters have provided a natural fortification for the rebels from artillery shelling and air strikes.
"If the US was humiliated and got lost in Tora Bora, how can the Syrian regime win here?" Ouda asked, referring to a battle in similar terrain during the war in Afghanistan.
Sounds of war
A fighter jet circling over the village dropped a bomb as Ouda spoke. It disappeared behind the endless chain of rugged mountains. The sound of a 23mm anti-aircraft gun rang out behind him as rebels tried, unsuccessfully, to shoot down the aircraft. Ouda claimed his fighters wrecked three planes over Flita in just one week.
The rebels’ resistance in Flita came as a surprise both to the regime and the opposition fighters elsewhere in Qalamoun who did not count on Flita to put up much of a defence. The village, which was a hub for drug production, had been largely spared the violence that has gripped the country in the past three years.
The drug lords here had an interest in maintaining stability, to sustain their business of supplying the locally-manufactured amphetamine stimulant Captagon in the form of tablets across Syria - and to other countries in the region.
The Syrian government had given drug dealers in the village a free ride during the conflict in return for their loyalty, Al Jazeera was told.
But loyalties were tested last month when rebels consolidated their grip on Flita.
Reclaiming the drug war
The rebel fighters executed several drug dealers who were believed to be collaborators with Assad’s administration, prompting those remaining to flee to neighbouring Lebanon.
One of those who fled across the border was Abu Abbas, a notorious drug lord who had been jailed and sentenced to death in 2007 - but was released by the government after the uprising began in 2011, in a bid to have him quell dissent in the strategic border village.
Abu Abbas’ lavish home built from cream-coloured stone stands out among the simple concrete buildings that characterise Flita. The three-storey building’s basement had once been used as a facility to produce Captagon, but rebels now use the generator there to light nearby houses, which had been cut off from electricity for the previous two months.
After three weeks of violence, every corner of the village bears the hallmarks of war. Windows of houses, overlooking the picturesque green plains embellished by cherry trees, are shattered. Shells have pierced several buildings two kilometres from the front line, and the rocky, unpaved roads in the village are filled with rubble. Dozens of mud-covered pick-up trucks used by rebels crowd the narrow streets.
Displaced and desperate
It took just days for most of the village’s 12,000 residents to become refugees, living in small stone huts in the no-man’s-land between Lebanon and Syria, or in tents and makeshift shelters in the Lebanese town of Arsal.
Ramez, in his early 60s, was just about the only civilian that could be seen in the street by sunset on the day Al Jazeera visited the village. His wife and daughters fled to Arsal, while his sons have moved to central Damascus. But Ramez does not want to leave his home unattended.
"A lot of people do not have the heart to leave their homes even though the situation here is really bad," said Ramez, wearing a black leather jacket over his grey traditional robe.
"There is no electricity, and no flour for bread. We travel to Arsal every day to get our basic goods."
Arsal is only a few kilometres away, but the road is rough and can get dangerous, especially amid increasingly frequent air strikes by the Syrian air force on the mountainous border area.
Nonetheless, many Syrians travel back and forth between Arsal and Flita to check on their homes and bring food to those remaining in the village.
Abu Abdo, a native of Flita whose family has settled in Arsal, carries fuel in his truck to the rebels of his home village. He said he paid for it out of his own pocket.
Dig your grave in Yabroud. Your dream of victory in Yabroud is an illusion.
Syrian rebels’ propaganda anthem,
"We are now refugees and we barely have enough money, but we must help the revolutionaries," he said. "I don’t want to see Hezbollah occupy my village the way they did in Qusair."
The Syrian town of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon, was captured in June 2013 by government troops backed by Hezbollah, following weeks of intense fighting. It was a huge symbolic loss for the rebels that made international media headlines.
"Oh resistance fighter, God is with you, and Qusair witnessed that," boasts the anthem praising Hezbollah. As Ouda continued to listen to the provocative lyrics, he became visibly annoyed.
Sitting on the passenger seat, his friend quickly grabbed the phone and changed the song to a counter-version, created by opposition activists.
"Dig your grave in Yabroud," the alternative warns Hezbollah. "Your dream of victory in Yabroud is an illusion."
Ouda smiled widely. “I like this,” he said. “I will transmit it through my walkie-talkie so that fighters can enjoy listening to it. Yabroud is, God-willing, the grave of Hezbollah.”
March 6, 2014 - The Stream : Syria’s humanitarian crisis
Paris, March 7, 2014 by Alissa J. Rubin
For the French archaeologists Pierre Leriche, 73, and Jean-Claude Margueron, nearly 80, who both spent decades uncovering Syria’s rich past, it is almost too painful to look at its grim present.
The civil war there has long made work impossible in the ancient cities, houses and temples where they once toiled peacefully to understand long-ago civilizations. Now in Paris, an increasing number of reports are arriving that document the extent of the damage to one of the world’s most important historical records, including physical destruction from the fighting, rampant pillaging of archaeological sites, and looting from museums and other collections.
The portrait emerging from scholars, the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and experts in Syria is of a country in the process of obliterating its cultural history.
“The situation now is absolutely terrible there,” said Mr. Leriche, a professor of archaeology at the École Normale Supérieure, one of France’s most prestigious universities, who worked for more than 25 years at a site on the Euphrates River. Noting reports of illegal excavation at about 350 places in that one site where he worked, he said: “They come with jackhammers. That means everything is destroyed.”
CreditLauren Fleishman for The New York Times
Mr. Margueron worked at another Euphrates site, Mari, which dates back 3,000 years.
“Mari was one of the first urban civilizations where man lived,” he said in his modest apartment filled with traditional Arab furniture and carpets. “If you pillage Mari, you destroy Mari. These are irremediable losses.”
Mr. Leriche and Mr. Margueron are just two of many archaeologists from Belgium, Britain, France, Italy and elsewhere who spent years uncovering Syria’s ancient history — the world of the ancient Greeks, the Romans and the early years of Islam in the Levant. Unesco is now trying to catalog and recover stolen Syrian artifacts, working with scholars, collectors and law enforcement authorities in bordering countries.
When the fighting began in 2011 there were at least 78 archaeological teams working in the country, and many included French-speaking scholars, in part a legacy of the French mandate in Syria and long cultural ties between the two countries, said Samir Abdulac, a Syrian who lives in France and is secretary general of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. He is in touch with archaeologists from around the world who worked in Syria and believes they have an invaluable, if necessarily incomplete, reservoir of information about the destruction of the country’s archaeological and artistic heritage.
Three types of destruction are occurring, said Mr. Abdulac and Nada Hassan, the chief of the Arab states unit for Unesco: destruction of archaeological sites by fighting; looting and pillaging at sites; and theft from museums — with the latter the least serious so far, although there are reports of thefts at the Hama museum and several others, often carried out by highly professional thieves who appear to have come to seize specific pieces.
Particularly vulnerable to the fighting have been citadels and castles, which were often built on high points so that soldiers in ancient times could spot the approach of their enemy. The same holds true today and rebels periodically claim sites, such as the famous crusaders’ castle, the Krak des Chevaliers. Then the Syrian Army fights to get it back, almost inevitably damaging the ancient walls, roofs and carvings. Sometimes sites change hands two or three times, each time suffering more damage from both sides.
The looting and pillaging has occurred largely in rebel-held areas, but also in contested places. When the fighting began and the foreign archaeologists left, the local guards, who often were no longer being paid, left their posts. Local residents, who were jobless, then often dismantled the structures where archaeologists had stored as-yet unlabeled finds, such as pottery shards and small artifacts; they broke into on-site museums and stole the windows and doors, the wood used in the buildings’ construction, the electrical wire and even pipes, according to the archaeologists.
The archaeologists said they did not blame the residents. “These are poor people in a crisis; one is worried for them,” said Agnès Vokaer, the field director of the Belgian archaeological team at Apamea, one of the largest Roman and early Christian sites in Syria. “There are no telephones, no electricity, there is no fuel for running agricultural machinery, there is no more food.”
The archaeologists are far more disturbed about what happened next. Foreign fighters soon arrived, and with them criminals who took a more ruthless approach. By late 2011 or early 2012, depending on the site, they were working with mechanized digging equipment and jackhammers and had a seemingly clear idea of what they wanted, according to residents. They set up armed guards as lookouts while the illegal excavators went to work.
“We have approximately 1,000 people working every day to find coins, objects, to find something to sell,” said Mr. Leriche of his site at Douros Europos, adding that the thieves worked with metal detectors burrowing into the ground whenever there were signs of metal.
CreditSyrian Directorate General for Antiquities and Museums
They are digging as well for mosaics, said Ms. Hassan of Unesco.
Lebanon has intercepted 86 mosaics that were looted from Syria and returned them, but that is a tiny percentage of what archaeologists believe has been taken, she said.
Ms. Vokaer, who worked for 10 years at Apamea before leaving in late 2010, described aerial views, taken in 2012, showing the site so pockmarked by holes — evidence of illegal digging — that it looked as if it had been barraged by mortar rounds.
“The houses had mosaics of great quality,” Ms. Vokaer said. “The churches also had great mosaics and also the great colonnade was decorated with mosaics on the sidewalk.”
As the war began, the Syrian government, worried that there would be a repeat of what happened in Iraq (where looters entered a museum and walked away with several thousand objects), set about securing the collections in the country’s 40 museums. Smaller objects went into secure vaults; others, too large to move, were garrisoned off. Some archaeological sites, such as the ancient settlement of Palmyra, stretch for miles, so that there was little more officials could do than lock the gates, knowing full well they could be quickly blasted open.
At first officials were optimistic that the rebels could be persuaded to preserve the sites — if only for themselves and their children, since they were Syrians. And initially they did.
“But now Syria is divided in two: Everyone is for or against the government,” said a Syrian official involved in preserving antiquities. “One always wants to say that archaeology does not take a political position, but by 2012 we no longer had control of the sites.”
Moreover, as fighters aligned with Al Qaeda, many of whom were foreigners from outside the country, gained the upper hand, the antiquities officials no longer could get a hearing.
“The local people, they kept their promise to guard the sites but the problem is Al Qaeda,” the official said. “They are fanatics; they told the curator of one of the museums, ‘You are the keeper of statues that are against religion.’ ”
Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite, as well as Christians, had deep roots in the country and respected, along with each other’s heritage, the country’s pagan history from its centuries under the rule of ancient Persia, Greece and Rome. It had a Jewish community as well and there are wall paintings from synagogues long preserved in the Damascus museum, although few if any Jews still live in Syria.
Whether that sense of a shared and diverse past can be reclaimed in this or the next generation is hard to know, but archaeologists and others believe that if there are no artifacts to show Syrians their shared past, the task will be much harder.
“Objects are not just stones,” said Irina Bokova, the head of Unesco. “This is about the identity of the Syrian people, and destroying the identity of people is a big blow to their communities.”
March 8, 2014 by Antoine Audo
Today, the first Sunday of Lent, will see churches crowded across the globe. But here in Syria, where St Paul found his faith, many churches stand empty, targets for bombardment and desecration. Aleppo, where I have been bishop for 25 years, is devastated. We have become accustomed to the daily dose of death and destruction, but living in such uncertainty and fear exhausts the body and the mind.
We hear the thunder of bombs and the rattle of gunfire, but we don’t always know what is happening. It’s hard to describe how chaotic, terrifying and psychologically difficult it is when you have no idea what will happen next, or where the next rocket will fall. Many Christians cope with the tension by being fatalistic: that whatever happens is God’s will.
Until the war began, Syria was one of the last remaining strongholds for Christianity in the Middle East. We have 45 churches in Aleppo. But now our faith is under mortal threat, in danger of being driven into extinction, the same pattern we have seen in neighbouring Iraq.
Most Christians who could afford to leave Aleppo have already fled for Lebanon, so as to find schools for their children. Those who remain are mostly from poor families. Many can no longer put food on the table. Last year, even amid intense fighting, you could see people in the streets running around endlessly trying to find bread in one of the shops.
The health system has also fallen apart. In the hospitals, many doctors have been threatened and forced to flee, so people fear that if they do get injured there will be no one to treat them. I thank God for the few brave surgeons who have stayed.
Most people here are now unemployed, and – without work – daily life lacks a purpose. People have no way to wash and their clothes are ragged. We have almost no electricity, and depression reigns at night. But when the darkness comes, I take courage from the fact that it was not always like this.
Syrians lived together for many years as a country, as a civilisation and a culture without hate or violence. Most people are not interested in sectarian divisions. We just want to work and live as we did before the war, when people of all faiths co-existed peacefully.
Syrian Christians may face great peril, but we have a crucial role to play in restoring peace. We have no interest in power, no stake in the spoils of this war, no objective but to rebuild our society.
As president of the Catholic aid charity Caritas, I am co-ordinating emergency relief for tens of thousands of people of all faiths, who desperately lack food, medical care and shelter, working in areas held both by the government and by armed opposition groups. We have many centres where people come to receive aid, and our volunteers go out to find those too weak, sick, old or young to help themselves. We support people of all backgrounds.
It is dangerous work. Five months ago, two rockets hit our offices, and it was truly a miracle that no one was killed.
As for me, I have to be careful walking around the city because of the risk of snipers and kidnapping. The fate of two priests snatched on the road from Aleppo to Damascus remains unknown. People fear for my safety and tell me to discard my bishop’s robes or hide away entirely.
But I cannot work unless I am in the streets to understand the situation and the suffering of the people. I am sustained by the daily acts of solidarity from my brothers and sisters around the world – including those from the British Church and its aid agency Cafod – with their prayers and donations. And as I walk through the dust and the rubble, I am not afraid.
St Paul’s virtues of faith, hope and love have rarely been in greater need, or under greater pressure, as we face the fourth year of this war. But I have faith in God’s protection, hope for our future, and my love of this country and all its peoples will outlast this war. I must believe that, and I pray that you in Britain will stand with us as long as our struggles endure.
Beirut, March 7, 2014 by Diaa Hadid
Syrian government forces seized a town from rebels near the Lebanese border on Saturday, their latest attempt to cut off opposition fighters’ fluid supply lines from the country, state media and activists said.
Fighting lasted weeks around Zara, which rebels used as a base to attack pro-regime communities in the area, said pro-Syrian media and Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. His group obtains its information from a network of activists on the ground.
The town was one of two last strongholds for rebels along the Lebanese border leading to the city of Homs, the other being the nearby village of al-Hosn, said another activist who identified himself as Samy al-Homsi.
"Without al-Hosn and Zara, it will be the end of the revolution to the west of Homs," al-Homsi said. "It’s the only two areas left to the rebels there."
Footage from Zara by Lebanon-based broadcaster al-Mayadeen showed plumes of smoke billowing from houses as gunfire and artillery could be heard in the background.
In previous fighting in the area, Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad fired well into Lebanon, apparently to push back rebels trying to sneak across on well-trodden smuggling routes.
An activist in al-Hosn who uses the name Abu Marwan al-Hosni said most Zara residents fled to his city during the fighting, but at least 20 people were killed after Assad-loyal gunmen entered the town.
"Some of them were butchered inside their homes and then they set the homes on fire. Others, the tanks fired at the homes. Others were killed by snipers as they fled," said al-Hosni. Activist collective the Local Coordinating Committees also reported the information.
Abdurrahman and the Lebanon-based al-Mayadeen channel said Syrian forces were now advancing into the nearby area of Hasarijiyeh.
Government troops have struggled to stem the flow of arms and fighters entering from Syria’s smaller neighbor. In the town of Yabroud — another rebel logistics hub near the capital — activists say its forces have been pummeling rebels for weeks with crude barrel bombs dropped by aircraft.
Death tolls from the reported strikes vary widely, as has often been the case during the three-year-long conflict. The Observatory said 16 civilians and 14 fighters died strikes on Friday, while an activist, who uses the name Amer, said in a Skype interview that four civilians were killed. Hundreds of civilians have died from the powerful but inaccurate weapons.
Meanwhile, Syria’s main Western-backed coalition confirmed Saturday that it has chosen a new army chief following an embarrassing episode in which their former leader refused to step down.
The statement insisted that despite some “confusion,” Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir would assume leadership of the coalition’s military council.
The body originally issued the announcement appointing al-Bashir on Feb. 17. But two days later, Maj. Gen. Salim Idris rejected his dismissal. Then Idris, along with more than a dozen senior insurgent commanders, severed ties with the political opposition-in-exile, further fragmenting the notoriously divided rebel movement.
Idris was ousted by colleagues who blamed him for the waning influence of the coalition-backed Free Syrian Army, as Islamic-orientated brigades grew in power.
Damascus, March 8, 2014 by AFP
Syrian regime troops Saturday captured a rebel-held town near a famed Crusader castle in the strategic province of Homs, state media and a monitoring group said, after nearly a month of fighting.
The town of Zara, near the Krak des Chevaliers castle in Homs province, fell to government forces a day after it was hit by air strikes, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
A source in the pro-regime National Defense Forces militia was quoted by state news agency SANA as saying the army had “seized full control of Zara after having wiped out the terrorists” — the regime’s term for rebel fighters.
The source added search operations were underway to make sure there were no gunmen hiding in the town or surrounding orchards.
The Observatory said the town, which is mostly inhabited by the Sunni Turkmen minority, was taken after “fierce fighting between loyalist troops and fighters from Jund al-Sham and other Islamist groups.”
The monitoring group, which relies on activists on the ground for its reports, said there were casualties on both sides but did not give any figures.
"Heavy clashes can still be heard around the town," it added.
The strategic central province borders Lebanon and the region’s capital, Homs city, is located on the highway to Damascus, a key supply route for the Syrian army.
The capture of Zara — which lies west of Homs city — comes as the army is battling rebels further south around Yabrud, an insurgent stronghold in the Qalamoun mountains close to the Lebanese border.
The fighting is part of an army offensive launched late last year also to secure the Damascus-Homs highway and to several a key rebel supply route to the town of Arsal in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.