Syrian army capitalises on capture of Qusayr by seizing nearby rebel pockets

UN attempts to prevent disintgeration of Golan Heights mission as Austrians withdraw

Soldiers loyal to the Syrian regime gesture while on their military vehicle in the village of Debaa near Qusayr. Photograph: Rami Bleible/Reuters

Soldiers loyal to the Syrian regime gesture while on their military vehicle in the village of Debaa near Qusayr. Photograph: Rami Bleible/Reuters


The Syrian army yesterday capitalised on its capture of the strategic town of Qusayr from rebel forces by seizing control of neighbouring villages. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council attempted to prevent the disintegration of the UN observer mission deployed along the ceasefire line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Troops mopped up pockets held by rebels north of Qusayr and reinforcements were dispatched to the contested cities of Homs and Aleppo, where the objective of expected offensives is to cut rebel supply lines to Turkey, reported the British-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Thursday’s brief seizure by rebels of the Golan Heights border crossing, its return to government control and skirmishing between troops and rebels in Quneitra’s old town prompted Austria, largest contributor to the UN mission, to declare it would withdraw its 377 troops from the 913-strong force.

The departure of Austrian troops, who have served on the Golan since the disengagement and monitoring body was established in 1974, would be a major blow to the force. The Philippines has also announced it is considering pulling out its 342 troops due to the lack of security along the Golan front. If it withdraws its troops, only 193 Indian troops will remain.

In March the fundamentalist rebel Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade kidnapped 21 Filippino soldiers and held them for several days and in May a Filippino patrol of four were abducted briefly by the same group. All were returned unharmed.

A Filippino and an Indian were wounded on Thursday by shrapnel from heavy shells falling near the mission’s base in the buffer zone.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon regretted Austria’s decision and was “concerned about the potential consequences of such a withdrawal on the peacekeeping operation and also on regional security”.

Israel, fearing infiltration of the Golan by jihadi rebels in the absence of peacekeepers, could push across the demilitarised zone and establish its own buffer zone inside Syria, risking clashes with troops and rebels. Israel has already reinforced its military deployment along the line to prevent the Syrian conflict from spilling into the Golan Heights, where Israel has settled 20,000 of its citizens in breach of international law.

Russian president Vladimir Putin offered to replace the Austrians if regional powers and the UN asked Moscow. But this is unlikely as Russia has been a staunch ally of the Syrian government and a regional competitor of the western powers.

Russian fleet
Russia, keen to protect its assets in the region, including the regime in Damascus, has announced that it will maintain a fleet of a dozen navy ships in the Mediterranean, where Moscow has a service base at the Syrian port of Tartous.

Following EU assessments that 500 to 700 European volunteers may have gone to fight with Syrian rebel and jihadi groups in Syria, Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia’s security service, said 200 militants who support the fundamentalist insurgency in the North Caucasus were fighting with the Caucasus Emirate under the flag of al-Qaeda.

UN humanitarian agencies, which expect half of Syria’s population of 23 million will require aid costing $5 billion (€3.78 billion) by the end of this year, have launched an appeal for $4.4 billion, the largest in the organisation’s history.

The sum needed dwarfs the $1.5 billion pledged at a conference in Kuwait earlier this year. So far, only Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait have honoured pledges of $300 million each; the United Arab Emirates, which promised a similar sum, has not transferred the money.

The UN forecasts that Syrians taking refuge in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt could more than double from 1.6 million to 3.45 million. The number of internally displaced Syrians needing aid could rise to 6.8 million.

The World Food Programme, which has provided 500 million meals in Syria this year, says weekly costs could rise from $20 million to $36 million a week after September although its funding shortfall amounts to $725 million.

The agency’s regional co-ordinator, Muhannad Hadi, said that if needy Syrians do not get food from the food programme, “they do not eat”.

In Aleppo province, two French radio journalists, reporter Didier François and photographer Edouard Elias, have gone missing after entering Syria from Turkey. At least 24 journalists have been killed in Syria.