4,000 surrounded rebels face last stand against Assad forces

Rebel fighters carry the body of a fellow fighter who was killed during what they said was an offensive against forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the al-Amriyeh neighborhood of Syria’s northwestern city of Aleppo April 9, 2014

The Syrian government and its Hezbollah allies are preparing for a showdown with thousands of Islamist fighters trapped in the last rebel-held town west of Damascus, in what could be one of the largest set-piece battles of the civil war.

As many as 4,000 rebels are believed to be gathering in Zabadani, many of them members of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise. Fighters from other towns that have fallen to government forces in recent weeks have been slipping through the Syrian army’s cordon to rejoin their comrades. “They think they will make a last stand in Zabadani,” said Anwar, a resident of the mainly Sunni town.

The capture of Zabadani would represent the final stage of a methodical government offensive that has been backed by battle-hardened Lebanese Shia fighters from Hezbollah. Regime officials have offered increasingly confident pronouncements on the direction of the war as rebel infighting, the intervention of Hezbollah and a lack of decisive foreign military aid have shifted the balance of power in the past year.

The fall of Zabadani would grant the Assad regime control over a critical corridor that links Damascus to the Mediterranean coast.

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Morale among Syrian rebels appears low. “We feel betrayed. It seems the whole world is with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime now, and we have been dumped,” said Abu Omar, a Lebanese resident of the border town of Arsal who provides support for Syrian rebels.

Zabadani, which lies adjacent to Lebanon’s eastern border, fell to the rebels in the first half of 2012. A de-facto ceasefire held for almost two years, but most of the town’s population fled during the initial fighting and are staying in Bloudan, a resort town in the mountains two miles to the east.

The ceasefire has dissolved in the past two months, with the Syrian army reinforcing its positions around the town and attacking with artillery fire and the notorious “barrel bombs”.

The final battle will be bloody. The rebels have had two years to prepare defences which are said to include fighting bunkers, tunnels, and booby-trapped buildings. However, Zabadani is wedged against a Hezbollah-controlled stretch of the Lebanese border and the rebels will have no escape route if the fight turns against them.