- Reclaiming southern, eastern suburbs of Damascus from rebels is Syrian regime priority
- Syrian troops retook Sbeineh from opposition fighters after brutal siege in November
- Government says Sbeineh was key supply line to other suburbs for opposition troops
Sbeineh was once a thriving town on the southern outskirts of Damascus. Residents of the Syrian capital came to buy their furniture here and many factories, now abandoned, still line the main street into town.
But the grinding, two-and-a-half-year war here has reduced Sbeineh to rubble. Its residents first fled when the town fell into the hands of rebels battling to bring an end to the reign of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But in early November the Syrian army reclaimed Sbeineh after a long and costly siege.
The military pounded rebel positions with tanks, artillery and heavy machine guns for weeks in the lead-up to the siege. Assad's men then raided the town, taking it back house by house. Various opposition groups that had occupied Sbeineh blamed each other for losing the battle, saying some rebel fighters had put up very little resistance against government troops.
We toured the destroyed town with a detachment from the Syrian army led by a soldier who goes by the name of Abu Aksam.
"Is this their freedom?" Abu Aksam said, walking past a pock-marked building. "Everything is broken."
The soldiers walked us through a block of interconnected houses, where the rebels who occupied Sbeineh for nearly a year punched holes through the walls in order to move safely from apartment to apartment, rather than fall prey to a sniper's scope out in the streets.
Government soldiers also uncovered a series of tunnels that the rebels were using to get supplies towards the front line. In one apartment we find a huge hole in the ground leading down to a tunnel used to smuggle weapons and ammunition to a sniper's vantage point at the other end.
"Our soldiers took heavy casualties from this position," Abu Aksam said. "It was very difficult to get this done, but we did it, and we will keep going until the end because we believe in our country."
Syrian troops showed us various locations in Sbeineh they claim served as headquarters for rebel groups ranging from the moderate Free Syrian Army to the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra. Aksam also took us to a room that he says served as weapons-manufacturing workshop for opposition fighters. Aksam says rebels used these improvised mini-factories to make mortars, rockets and improvised bombs.
"They used the tools to make mortars and rockets and used gas cylinders to make very large bombs," he said, standing amid the debris inside the room.
The government says Sbeineh was vital for resupplying its fighters in the southern outskirts of Damascus. Losing areas around the capital dealt a heavy blow to the Syrian regime's efforts to win the war, and the government has made it a priority to take the suburbs back.
The Syrian army's victory at Sbeineh was a strategic triumph for the government as it tries to unseat rebels from the large swaths of territory they've taken east and south of the capital. But while the soldiers rejoice at their hard-fought win, the real losers are the citizens of this once vibrant suburb who won't be able to return any time soon.