June 5, 2013
By Jacob Wirtschafter, Special for USA TODAY
The original story published in USA Today is here.
AMMAN: Syrian rebel fighters and wounded civilians were forced to flee al-Qusayr Wednesday, as Syrian troops, supported by Hezbollah militia, advanced on the strategic city close to the Lebanese border.
“Yes, al-Qusayr fell to regime control,” said 25-year-old Muhammad Awad of the Free Syrian Army’s al-Farouk Battalion in Qusayr.
“Let the world, the regime and all the people against us be happy. We retreated because we could not take them on anymore.”
The Free Syrian army, which had held on to the city for months through increasingly fierce bombardment and attacks by the regime, killing hundreds, conceded that they had to make a retreat from the town that lies on a key supply routeLocals reported a chaotic and tense situation.
“Things are very bad in here right now,” said Abu al-Walid, a 23-year-old schoolteacher. “Many (rebel) battalion leaders have been killed, and the airport has been occupied by Hezbollah again.”
At 10 miles west of the Syrian-Lebanon border in the Homs province, al-Qusayr is a lifeline for the Syrian regime, a key crossroad on the road running from north to south between the coast and Damascus. It is also a strategic point in the supply route of the regime’s ally, Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shia military organization, as it moves weaponry and fighters from east to west.In recent months, rebels had held the important city, blocking Hezbollah’s access to the road as well as the regime’s route to Homs and the coast.
But, late on Tuesday, Syrian state-run TV said that troops were in “full control” of the southwestern part of the town.The loss of the city comes as a huge blow to the rebels, as many had said the fall of the city could foretell the outcome of the conflict in the war-torn country.
“If al-Qusayr falls, the revolution will fall along with it in most of Syria — because people will lose all hope,” said Mohammed al-Abdullah, 27, who before the revolution broke out used to sell agricultural equipment with his father.
Two months ago, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its Sunni Islamist allies said they held two-thirds of the territory around al-Qusayr, a city of 30,000 before the start of the war.
The FSA said it had “liberated” the sprawling Dab’aa Military Airport directly south of nearby Homs and were lobbing shells at Hezbollah supply routes into the area.
But in recent days, the rate of shelling had increased to 50 shells a minute in al-Qusayr as war planes droned overhead and missiles slammed into already heavily bombarded buildings. Insurgents had begun to face shortages of ammunition and medicines and supply roads were cut.
While the Syrian opposition had distributed video-footage of rebel reinforcements arriving in the surrounding Homs province, some admit the fresh troops had no way to join the fierce battle.
“They have been cut off from access,” said al-Walid. “They are like an audience for the battle, not fighters. And their numbers are overstated.”
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad downplayed the importance of the city in an interview with Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV last week.
“They say al-Qusayr is a strategic border town but all the borders are strategic for the terrorists in order to smuggle in their fighters and weapons,” he said.
However, now Assad forces have regained the city, activists say it opens the gateway for more weapons to make their way into the hands of the regime.
“They will secure their arms supply route to Hezbollah on the Lebanese border, which is also used to move arms from Hezbollah to Syria,” said Khoudair Khafcheh, 27, a member of the Homs Local Coordination Council.
Meanwhile, the battle at al-Qusayr has pushed Syria’s already fragmented opposition to a breaking point. Supporters of the revolution question the wisdom of plans for Syrian opposition to attend talks with the Syrian regime next month.
“With the balance of power on the ground shifting against the rebels to Assad, Syrian (opposition supporters) have no interest in a political solution, despite the sacrifices, because any partial solution will end the revolution, and enable the regime to stay and continue killing its people,” said Mowafak Zuraiq, a longtime opponent of the government speaking from exile in Saudi Arabia
The number of people killed as a result of the continuing bombardment of al-Qusayr is not known. One estimate is 237 people from the beginning of the military attack on the city and more than 2,400 wounded, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. But, other activists say the death toll is far higher.
The Free Syrian Army’s Awad blamed the international community and the Syrian National Coalition, which he said did not represent all Syrian people, for the fall of the city “No one helped us,” he said.
“We requested safe corridors to evacuate the wounded and the civilians but no one helped us. Now you can expect a large massacre.
On Sunday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed the “gravest concern” about al-Qusayr and the International Committee of the Red Cross pleaded for access and permission to evacuate those injured.
But Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said the Red Cross would only be allowed to enter the town once “military operations” were complete.
“The purpose is to control the area in a broken bones battle for both the regime and the rebels,” said Asaad a-Zoubi, a staff brigadier general from the Syrian Air Force who defected to the rebels.
Meanwhile, the international community remains torn on how to deal with the ongoing conflict, now in its third year.
On Saturday, Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council declaration of alarm over al-Qusayr provoking an official rebuke from the SNC, which called it a “threat to the lives of tens of thousands of innocent civilians living in the region.
Russia has been a consistent advocate for talks to resolve the Syrian crisis while delivering an advanced S-300 air defense system to Damascus
Still, the real turn on fortunes for the regime has come through the influx of thousands Hezbollah fighters in the regionAnalysts say the Lebanese militia has its own agenda for trying to keep the Assad regime in power.
“Hezbollah probably assesses that if the Sunnis in Homs link up with the Sunni communities in northern Lebanon, that would threaten areas that it considers of core strategic importance, including Hermel, the northern Bekaa and Ba’albek,” said Firas Abi Ali, a Middle East analyst at IHS in London, referring to Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon.
“So they are going to commit resources to ensuring Assad’s control of Homs province.And activists are losing hope”Syria will fall soon,” said al-Walid.
“I feel very bad saying that but when al-Qusayr falls, we will have to retreat to Beirut and die there, there is no other option.”
While some activists are losing hope and said Syria’s fall to the regime would come soon, others said the fight would go on
“We’ve lost this battle, but this is an attack and retreat type of war,” said Awad.
Contributing: Michael Scaturro in Berlin