MAALOULA, Syria - Syrian troops triumphantly swept through some of the last remaining opposition strongholds north of Damascus, including a much coveted ancient Christian hamlet, sending rebel fighters fleeing to nearby hills amid an ever tightening noose.
The near total collapse of rebels along a key supply route that has long funneled weapons to opposition-held districts around Damascus helps strengthen President Bashar al-Assad's hand in and around the capital ahead of presidential elections during which he intends to run for a third term.
The dramatic capture of Sarkha, Maaloula, and Jibbeh was the fastest series of army successes against rebels in the Qalamoun region since the government launched an offensive in November in the strategic area, a wedge of mountainous territory between the capital and the Lebanese border.
The string of military achievements there this year by government forces - often boosted by allied Hezbollah fighters - adds another layer of defense for Damascus.
In Maaloula, a historic Christian enclave set into the rocky hills that has changed hands several times in the war, Syrian soldiers jubilantly hoisted the Syrian flag atop the shattered facade of a landmark hotel where rebels had been holed up.
In a sign of the persistent dangers, three members of a television crew working with the Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV were killed when their car came under fire in the town.