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Assad's forces set sights on two major cities after big victory over Syria rebels

DAMASCUS, Syria -- President Bashar Assad's forces are turning their sights on rebel fighters in two major cities -- Homs and Aleppo -- after capturing a strategic town in western Syria.

The latest battlefield success in Qusair, near the border with Lebanon, was partly due to Lebanese Hezbollah fighters' increasing role on Assad's side.

Government troops pressed ahead Thursday with an aggressive military offensive, seizing control of the village of Dabaa just north of the town.

Hundreds of rebel fighters who had been entrenched in Qusair for more than a year fled Wednesday after a punishing three-week assault, retreating to surrounding areas.

The regime's triumph in Qusair, a key crossroads town of supply lines between Damascus and western and northern Syria, showcased the potentially game-changing role of Hezbollah in Syria's civil war and was openly celebrated in the militant group's strongholds in Lebanon and in Damascus, the seat of Assad's power.

Syrian TV reports the government forces backed by Hezbollah fighters have taken the strategic town of Qusair that has been in opposition control since 2011. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

Syrian state-run media portrayed Qusair's fall as a turning point in the more than two-year civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people.

However, dozens of rebel fighter brigades have taken unquestioned control of huge swathes of territory in the country's north and east, setting up local councils and Islamic courts to administer affairs in towns and villages.

Kurds have all but carved out their own separate existence in the country's northeast.

Josef Holliday, of the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said he believes Assad is not aiming for outright victory over the rebels in all of Syria.

"The objective is survival in what they (regime loyalists) consider the strategically important parts of Syria, with the majority of the population," he said.

Following the victory in Qusair, the regime's next targets are rebel-held areas in and around the city of Homs, a government official told The Associated Press.

As Syria's third-largest city and one-time epicenter of the uprising, Homs holds both strategic and symbolic importance for the regime.

In April 2011, one month after the uprising against Assad began, protesters gathered at central Clock Square in Homs, bringing mattresses, food and water in hopes of emulating Cairo's Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution.

The peaceful, mass protests eroded Assad's narrative that the uprising was the work of "terrorists" and "armed thugs," and were quickly put down. Since then, the predominantly Sunni city, with Christian and Alawite minorities, has come under crushing attack on numerous occasions.

"The (army) command has put forward a plan, which is being executed," said the government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge details about ongoing military operations.

A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.

He said the army was carrying out "quick, successive attacks" to secure the northern entrance of Homs city and seized the village of al-Khaldiyeh along the way Thursday. It also intends to regain the rebel strongholds of Rastan and Talbiseh, towns just north of Homs city.

Pro-regime media outlets have said government forces are preparing to move to retake the contested northern city of Aleppo next.

Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial hub, was overrun by rebels last summer, and remains one of the country's bloodiest battlegrounds as rebels and regime forces fight over it.

Hezbollah fighters were instrumental to the regime victory in Qusair, but it's not clear whether they will participate to the same extent in future battles deeper inside Syria.

Jeff White, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the rebels were in for trouble, unless they improve their military and political command structure and get more weapons.

"The regime has laid down the challenge, and the rebels will have to respond, or they will have a bleak future ahead of them," he said.

The West, particularly the United States, has been reluctant to send more sophisticated weapons out of fear they might fall into the hands of Islamic extremists fighting in the rebel ranks, including members of Jabhat al-Nusra, which has sworn allegiance to al Qaeda.

A U.N.-sponsored international conference that was to bring representatives of the Assad government and the opposition together for negotiations has now been put off to at least July. 

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