Troops push into strategic rebel-held Syrian town

At least 10 killed since Sunday in battle for Qusayr near Lebanese border

The northern Lebanese port of Tripoli has been caught up in the battle between Syrian troops bolstered by Lebanese Shia Hizbullah fighters and rebel forces for the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr, 10km east of the Lebanese border.

Pro-rebel Lebanese Sunni gunmen fired dozens of mortars and rocket-propelled grenades into a neighbourhood inhabited by heterodox Shia Alawites who support their Syrian coreligionist president Bashar al-Assad.

When the gunmen from Tripoli’s Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh quarter advanced into the Alawite Jabal Mohsen district, they were halted by Lebanese troops who opened fire with heavy machine guns. Ten people, including two soldiers, have died since Sunday when the Syrian army began its Qusayr offensive.

Fierce clashes continued in Qusayr itself where troops, reportedly, control 80 per cent of the city but dug-in rebels continue to fight in the suburbs. Rebels from across Syria have been called to join battle by the expatriate opposition National Coalition acting head George Sabra. He accused Hizbullah and Iran, which is said to have sent military advisers to Damascus, of invading Qusayr.


US secretary of state John Kerry said there were several thousand Hizbullah fighters, backed by Iran, taking part in the Syrian conflict. Hundreds of foreign jihadi fighters from a dozen countries, including Ireland, Germany and Britain, are fighting alongside the rebels.

Protests erupted in Lebanon's southern port of Sidon against the burial in a Sunni cemetery of Hizbullah fighter, 21-year old Saleh Sabbagh, killed in Qusayr. Son of a Shia father and Sunni mother, Sabbagh was buried in a Shia graveyard. Lebanon puts the number of Hizbullah fighters killed in Syria since the Qusayr offensive began at 18, with 45 hurt.

Turkey has closed for a month the only border gate controlled by the Syrian government due to twin bombings, blamed by Ankara on Damascus, that killed 51 in the city of Reyhanli last week. The gate will reopen once bomb-detection equipment is installed.

Foreign ministers from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the US met in Amman with the opposition coalition to discuss the projected international peace conference slated for June and ways to boost the effectiveness of rebel forces to strengthen the opposition’s negotiating position.

In recent weeks, the Syrian military has recaptured lost ground and is poised to secure Qusayr, which sits astride the main smuggling route for arms and fighters from Lebanon into Syria. The government has named five ministers to attend the conference but expatriate opposition hardliners have conditioned attendance on a guarantee that Mr Assad will not be part of transitional arrangements and on fresh shipments of arms to rebel forces.

'Unprecedented suffering'
However, former coalition president Moaz Khatib, a proponent of dialogue, said the opposition was prepared to negotiate with the government and had no objection to resolving the conflict by political means. "All the opposition forces want is a solution for the Syrian people. . . [who] are facing unprecedented suffering," he stated.

Moscow, co-sponsor of the conference, held talks with Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad.

The coalition is to meet today in Istanbul to choose a president to replace Mr Khatib, who resigned last month.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times