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Syrian army retakes key airbase from rebel forces in Eastern Ghouta

Marj as-Sultan airport had been in rebel hands for three years
Syrian government bombardment in Eastern Ghouta (SMO)

The Syrian army has recaptured a key town and airbase in the Damascus countryside, leaving rebel groups in the Eastern Ghouta region vulnerable to further attacks by government forces.

The Marj as-Sultan airport was reportedly taken by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Assad-loyalist National Defence Forces (NDF) on Monday morning, after remaining under rebel control for three years.

"The Syrian army has taken full control of the town of Marj al-Sultan and its airport in Eastern Ghouta," a military source told AFP.

The airport was seized by rebel groups in November 2012.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the pro-government forces, which support President Bashar al-Assad, also included Hezbollah.

SOHR head Rami Abdel Rahman said that government forces had secured the airport in the afternoon but were “still working to secure the town," where some rebel forces remain.

He said that it was "a step towards tightening the siege around Eastern Ghouta...and reinforcing the Damascus international airport and the road that leads to it". 

Kyle Orton, an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, told Middle East Eye that the capture of the airport, which is 15km east of Damascus, marked a significant victory for the government. 

“It matters. It's one of first zones in that area to fall, and the airport's important. The real strongholds are further north though.”

He added that should government forces maintain control of the airport it would allow for an expansion of air strikes against rebels in Eastern Ghouta, though it was likely there would be a counter-attack.

The fall of Marj as-Sultan leaves open the larger rebel strongholds of al-Nashabiyah and al-Bilaliyah to the north.

Eastern Ghouta is controlled by Jaish al-Islam, one of the most powerful opposition groups in Syria. The group took part in opposition talks in Saudi Arabia last week, though their charismatic leader Zahran Alloush was unable to attend due to the bombardment on Eastern Ghouta.

Assad’s airforce has frequently launched aerial bombardments on the residents of Eastern Ghouta.

A bombing raid on the town of Douma on Sunday killed at least 28 civilians, including two children, the Observatory said. 

According to the Syrian Civil Defence, at least 40 people were killed from both government and Russian air strikes in Douma, Saqba, Kafr Batna, and Hammouriya.

For their part, rockets launched by Jaish al-Islam on Damascus killed a young girl and injured three others on Sunday.