Syrian Troops Choke off Rebels North of Damascus, by Albert Aji, Associated Press
"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 and 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 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 Jobbeh 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 and scenic Christian enclave set into the rocky hills has changed hands several times in the war, Syrian soldiers jubilantly hoisted the Syrian flag atop the shattered facade of a perched, landmark hotel where rebels had been holed up for months.
"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 a hail of bullets in the town. The three had been filming in the area when the two-car convoy they were traveling in came under fire."