Battle for Qusair believed to be edging in favour of loyalist forces, and role of Hezbollah marks new escalation in crisis.
Syrian and Hezbollahtroops have pushed deep into the strategic border town of Qusair after a ferocious artillery and mortar blitz that is thought to have killed more than 50 residents and laid bare the Lebanese militia’s direct support for the Assad regime.
The battle for the town, which lies at a crucial junction between Damascus and Homs, is believed to be edging in favour of loyalist forces who had hammered rebel-held areas with overwhelming firepower before launching a much-anticipated advance late on Saturday.
But rebels in Qusair insist they have not lost control of key areas and have vowed to withstand the advance of Hezbollah militants from the Lebanese border to the south and Syrian troops approaching from the north.
Qusair-based rebels are mainly a homegrown mix of civilians and army defectors. However, Jabhat al-Nusra, a group with links to al-Qaida, has gained both in prominence and numbers in recent months and is believed to be leading the defence of the southern outskirts where it is clashing directly with Hezbollah.
The fighting of the past 48 hours marks the first time in the Syrian civil war, or anywhere else, that Sunni al-Qaida and Shia Hezbollah have fought a direct and large-scale engagement. Members of both groups had clashed sporadically in other parts of the country over the past two years, often unknowingly. But the current confrontation breaks new ground in the conflict and sharply underlines the sectarian element of Syria‘s war. President Bashar al-Assad is from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Across the border in Lebanon, a hospital and medical clinics in the Hezbollah stronghold of the Bekaa valley, 10 miles from the fighting, were seeking blood donations to help treat wounded militants. Sources in the Beirut suburb of Daheyah, where the group’s command post is located, said wounded fighters had also been taken to hospitals there.
Activists in Qusair suggested up to 30 Hezbollah members may have been killed and dozens more injured. Those figures are impossible to verify.
What is clear is that Hezbollah’s prominent role marks yet another escalation in a crisis that continues to alarm the region and force a mass exodus of Syrian citizens into neighbouring states. The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that more than 1.5 million Syrians have fled to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Up to several million more remain internally displaced.
Hezbollah, whose raison d’etre is ostensibly resistance against Israel, has shifted uncomfortably as the civil war has intensified. The group owes much to the strategic depth provided to it by the Assad regime, which offers a supply run, weapons depots, and a refuge for key figures.
Iran, the key patron of both groups, is also heavily invested. Hezbollah, over the past year in particular, has tried to condition its followers to the fact that it is fighting a war in a neighbouring Arab state, rather than the Israeli military.
“It isn’t even a secret any more,” said one 25-year-old resident of a Hezbollah enclave in Daheyah, who refused to be named. “There are dozens of martyrs coming home. I know of at least four myself. People are talking about it openly. They are even starting to use the main martyrs cemetery. They say that they died defending the Sit Zeinab mosque [an important Shia Islamic shrine in Damascus].”
Peter Harling, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group, said the Lebanese group’s now open involvement was a landmark moment in the war. “The fact that Hezbollah has chosen to assume such an ostensible role changes the nature of the conflict generally,” he said. “It will suck Israel in, adding a new layer. It will further exacerbate the sectarian component of the struggle.
“Hezbollah’s direct involvement also transforms its rapport with Syrian society: the resulting animosity will discourage Hezbollah and Iran from considering any compromise that could weaken the power structure, which they now need more than ever. Finally, it shifts the definition of a possible regime victory, turning it into a triumph for its allies, which will be more difficult to accept for their enemies.”
If opposition groups are ousted from Qusair, loyalist forces will have control of a supply line from Damascus to Syria’s third city, Homs, which would allow the regime to consolidate in a part of the country it regards as a strategic corridor. Its core support bases in the nearby Alawite hinterland, which runs from near Homs towards Latakia and Tartus on the Mediterranean coast, have been exposed at times by rebel gains in the area.
A regime victory would also offer it an uncontested link to the northern Bekaa, where Hezbollah and surrounding Shia villages can offer ongoing support to loyalist forces.
Source: The Guardian
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