Standing at the gate of a Crusader castle captured from insurgents less than 24 hours before, a Syrian army officer declared on Friday that government forces were now in control of the western half of Homs province.
The securing of the area follows three months of gains by government forces against opposition groups and serves two aims – cutting armed groups supply routes from Lebanon, which borders Homs, and securing a highway that connects the capital to the coast.
Controlling this road is especially important for the Syrian Army as it is used to transport chemical weapon agents to be shipped out and destroyed under an international agreement.
The Syrian army convoy and journalists passed by several towns in the Qalamoun mountain range that were also recently captured by the army.
Syrian soldiers raised the national flag on the battlements of Crac des Chevaliers on Thursday after a three-month siege. Its fall followed the army’s retaking on Sunday of Yabroud – one of the last armed groups-held towns along the Damascus-Homs highway.
“We are in complete control of the western Homs countryside,” the officer told Reuters, without giving his name.
He further stated: “We acted in a way to preserve the Krak, to make sure it would not be damaged,” said a colonel who escorted the journalists on their tour.
His soldiers walked around the 900-year-old castle that TE Lawrence, the British army officer who fought with Arab warriors against Ottoman rule in World War One, called the “best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.”
The hilltop fortress suffered mortar hits last year. The outer walls appeared intact and only minor damage inside, with some chipped stones and bullet holes.
The militants had left beds, plates and books inside the medieval arched rooms of the castle.
The officer said the armed groups there were foreign extremists from “Saudi, Palestine and Lebanon.” The insurgents fled on Thursday morning but were ambushed by the army. Some made it to Lebanon.
With western Homs in government hands, nearly all Syrian areas bordering Lebanon are unsafe for terrorists.