It is arguably one of the most coveted prizes in Syria's civil war, and after eight years of fighting, Syrian President Bashar Assad has got it back. The Damascus-Aleppo highway, or the M5, is known to Syrians simply as the "International Road." Cutting through all of Syria's major cities, the 280-mile motorway is key to who controls the country. Assad gradually lost control over the motorway beginning in 2012, when various rebel groups fighting to topple him began seizing parts of the country. For the rebels fighting Assad, the motorway was a cornerstone in holding together their territory and keeping government forces at bay. Its loss marks a major blow for opposition fighters whose hold on their last patches of ground in northwestern Syria is looking more and more precarious, the AP reports.
The Syrian government began winning back segments of the highway starting in 2014. That's when Russia joined the war on the side of Assad and essentially tipped it in his favor. This week, during the latest government offensive in Idlib, the last rebel-held bastion in the country, Syrian troops backed by Russia recaptured the last rebel-controlled section of the highway around Khan al-Assal. That brought the road under the full control of Assad’s forces for the first time since 2012. Fighting continues in areas near the highway, and much of Idlib province remains in rebel hands. But the M5's seizure goes a long way to re-connect government-controlled areas after they had been severed from each other for years. (Read more Syria stories.)