Middle East

Syria rebels, army in fierce battle for Al-Qusair

Syrian civilians ride past two destroyed buses stacked on top of rubble in the northern city of Aleppo.

BEIRUT: Fierce clashes pitted Syrian rebels against government troops assisted by Hezbollah fighters in several villages near the border with Lebanon Tuesday, as a military source told AFP the army expects to seize Al-Qusair, a rebel stronghold, “within days.”

“The army is leading the campaign on the northern and eastern fronts, and Hezbollah is leading the fight on the southern and western fronts,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel-Rahman.

“The army is advancing in the Al-Qusair region, and the capture of the city is just days away, at most,” the military source said on condition of anonymity.

“The aim is to cleanse the region of terrorists in order to guarantee the safe return of residents” who fled fighting in the area, the source added, using the regime term for rebels.

But Abdel-Rahman said the rebels’ “fierce resistance” to the assault would make the army’s advance difficult.

Rebel “morale is high. They are willing to fight to the death to defend their villages and their city,” he said.

The Observatory and the opposition say the army is assisted by elite fighters from Hezbollah, a staunch backer of President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Hezbollah says those fighting are Lebanese party members who have lived in Syrian border villages for decades and are defending themselves against “rebel attacks.”

A Hezbollah official Monday described the group’s actions as “a national and moral duty in the defense of the Lebanese in border villages.”

In the past week, government troops have overrun villages near the Lebanese border.

The advances have improved the regime’s footing in strategic areas that are seen as crucial to its survival.

In many ways, Assad’s government has little choice at this point in the civil war, analysts say. Rebels have captured much of northern and eastern Syria, seizing control of military bases, hydroelectric dams, border crossings and even a provincial capital. Those areas are home to most of the country’s oil fields, and the losses have deprived the regime of badly needed cash and fuel for its war machine.

However, those provinces – Raqqa, Hassakeh and Deir al-Zor – are located hundreds of kilometers from the capital Damascus.

Rebel advances there pose no direct threat to the regime’s hold on Damascus – the ultimate prize in the country’s civil war – and any effort to claw back the lost territory would demand manpower and military hardware, neither of which the regime is inclined to invest at the moment.

Instead, it has used its remaining air bases and military outposts in those areas to shell and bomb the territory it has lost in an attempt to forestall the opposition from establishing an interim administration in the rebel-held regions.

“What’s important for the regime is not to leave any buffer zone, or any security zone for the rebels,” said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese Army general who heads the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut.

While keeping the rebels off-balance in the lands it has lost, the regime at the same time has dedicated its resources to Damascus and securing what it widely believed to be Assad’s Plan B – a retreat to the Mediterranean coastal region that is the heartland of his Alawite minority, which views its own survival as being tightly intertwined with that of the regime.

Key to that strategy is control of the corridor running from Damascus to the city of Homs and from there to the coast.

Fighting has flared in the Homs region in recent weeks as the government has pressed its campaign to stamp out rebel-held pockets in the area.

Much of the heaviest fighting has raged near the Lebanese border around Al-Qusair, southeast of Homs, where activists said government troops backed by Hezbollah captured the villages of Radwineyeh and Tel al-Nabi Mando.

“The Al-Qusair area is highly important,” said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general and a senior lecturer at the American University of Beirut. “It is critical for Assad because this area is the backyard of Damascus. It is the link between Damascus, Homs and the coastal area, so he can ill afford to lose it.”

As government troops have pursued rebels in the Al-Qusair region, regime forces in and around Damascus have also moved against opposition-held suburbs, which anti-Assad fighters have tried to use as a springboard for forays into the capital itself.

With the stakes so high in the battle for the capital, the fighting around Damascus has been particularly fierce, and the regime has used its warplanes and artillery to try to pound rebellious areas into submission.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 24, 2013, on page 8.




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