Rebels flee Qusayr as Hizbullah-backed Syrian forces take control of vital town
‘Whoever controls Qusayr controls . . . Syria,’ says brigadier
Forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad carry the national flag as they ride on motorcycles in Qusayr, after the Syrian army took control from rebel fighters yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Mohammed Azakir
Syrian troops and their Lebanese Shia Hizbullah allies yesterday took control of the strategic Syrian border town of Qusayr, routing thousands of rebel fighters who had held it for more than a year, as well as hundreds of reinforcements who arrived over the past week.
The rebels, who said pockets of fighters remain in the town, declared they had pulled out due to the “huge arsenal” of the army and “a lack of supplies and the blatant intervention of Hizbullah”.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition responded to the defeat by stating, “The blessed revolution will continue. Victory is on the side of the righteous, who resisted in the face of oppression and injustice.”
The fall of Qusayr was symbolised by televised images of a soldier planting a Syrian flag on the bullet-riddled clock tower in the town centre, among heavily damaged buildings and rubble.
The Syrian military command declared, “We will not hesitate to crush with an iron fist those who attack us. Their fate is surrender or death. We will continue our string of victories until we regain every inch of Syrian soil.”
Syrian brigadier Yehya Suleiman told Beirut’s Mayadeen television channel, “Whoever controls Qusayr controls the centre of the country, and whoever controls the centre of the country controls all of Syria. ”
The majority of the town’s inhabitants appear to have fled over the past year, with the sizeable Christian population taking to the mountain villages of the interior and heterodox Shia Alawites moving to the coast.
The UN High Commission for Refugees said the few remaining women and children who did manage to leave described Qusayr as a “ghost town”. Men who remained risked being slain at checkpoints, stated agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming.
Rebel doctors said there were 300-1,500 wounded in the town requiring evacuation and urgent medical treatment. Rebel units are reported to have taken out some injured.
Damascus has said the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross will be granted access once the military is in full control.
The loss of Qusayr could dramatically increase the violent spillover from the Syrian conflict into neighbouring Lebanon. Free Syrian Army commander Selim Idriss warned the Lebanese authorities that his fighters could “move the battles to Lebanon to confront Hizbullah members fighting alongside Syrian regime forces” if the movement does not end its intervention.
As a warning to Lebanese Sunni militants bent on exacting revenge against Hizbullah and its supporters, a Syrian military helicopter fired five missiles into the village of Kerbet Dawoud, near the Lebanese town of Arsal, another location at which rebels enter and exit from Syria and foreign fighters join the battle.
Opposition activists say Hizbullah fighters are taking up positions on the northern outskirts of Aleppo, where the rebels have held sway in about 60 per cent of the city over the past 10 months. A fresh army campaign to retake the city, Syria’s largest and commercial hub, is expected.
Hizbullah supporters in Shia towns and villages located 8-10km from Qusayr celebrated with fireworks while Shias in the southern suburbs of Beirut and towns in the south of the country handed out sweets.
Iran, which has reportedly dispatched military advisers to Syria, congratulated the Syrian army and people on the triumph at Qusayr, while the US condemned Hizbullah’s involvement in the conflict.
Following a preparatory gathering of UN, US and Russian diplomats in Geneva, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said the proposed US-Russian sponsored peace conference could be postponed until July.
The Syrian opposition and rebels have still to overcome differences and choose their delegation. The government has named a team of five. Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdonov said the war in Syria is a “bloody dead-end” from which there is “no exit but through starting political dialogue between the Syrians”.