BEIRUT: It was over three weeks ago that Syrian government officials told state news agencies they would “cleanse” the town of Qusair, close to the Lebanon border of rebel forces “within days.”
As of Monday night, Syrian government forces, backed by hundreds, if not thousands, of Hezbollah fighters were still locked in battle with rebel forces opposing President Bashar Assad in and around the disputed town, having failed to make a decisive victory.
The staying power of the rebel forces, vastly outnumbered and outgunned in the face of elite Syrian forces with superior weaponry and airpower has defied predictions by military analysts who foresaw a swift defeat for opposition forces.
“The rebels certainly need to be given credit for determination. What they have done so far was against the odds,” said Jeff White, a senior defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Claims that Syrian forces had taken the center of Qusair and up to 80 percent of the 25,000-strong town after initially storming it on May 19 were swiftly denied by rebel groups and activists, in what some put down to a morale-boosting exercise.
By last week, as Hezbollah losses mounted, it was clear the battle was far from over.
There were continued heavy clashes at Dabaa Monday, the site of a disused military air base north of the city, partially under rebel control.
Activists said forces loyal to Assad were also engaged in heavy battles with rebels in the village of Jouadiyah, about 3 kilometers north of the city, and controlled the neighboring villages of Borak and Arjoun.
Activist and field hospital coordinator Rifaie Tammas said snipers had been deployed along main streets to the east, where rebels hold the villages of Abel and Buwayda to try to “paralyze” a rebel advance and isolate civilian movement.
Warplanes continued to shell Qusair Monday while the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that three surface-to-surface missiles were used by government forces in the town.
White said determination by the rebels was matched by “overconfidence” on the part of Hezbollah, also pointing to Syrian opposition fighters’ familiarity with the landscape for giving them an advantage early on in the battle.
“There was an expectation that this would be a walkover and obviously that hasn’t happened. The rebels were on their own ground and had prepared the ground with booby traps and the like ... while Hezbollah were conducting offensive operations in unfamiliar territory. In the early stages, until May 19, [the regime] hadn’t really committed a lot of armor,” White said.
“All of these things are an advantage for defensive capabilities.”
But he said ultimately the regime, with access to greater manpower and resources, would win out.
“The regime is relentless and they keep calling on extra resources. They sometimes pause and recuperate, but if they really want to take a place, they do it,” he said. Nonetheless, rebel morale remains high.
As news emerged late last night, as reported on Al-Manar television – which has journalists embedded with Hezbollah on the ground in Qusair – of plans for a blistering offensive from the southwest to try to take the town, rebel commanders said they were feeling confident.
Speaking from Qusair via Skype, a civilian-turned-commander of the Diya’ Jamoul Battalion, a branch of one of the Free Syrian Army Farouk Brigades, said while heavy shelling continued and “the whole area is surrounded,” the rebels were determined. “A lot of civilians who were not taking part in the fight have joined now. We are now on the attack, not just the defensive,” he said.
Buoying rebel confidence has been the arrival of hundreds of opposition reinforcements, particularly from Aleppo’s Tawhid Brigade, who have infiltrated the area after responding to a call to assist in the strategic battle.
Heavyweight commanders, including the commander of Tawhid, Abdel-Kader Saleh, and Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Akidi of the Aleppo Military Council, along with other senior commanders from Deir al-Zor have also joined the battle.
Amid unconfirmed reports that Hezbollah and Syrian government forces are mobilizing north to Aleppo, it was unclear whether such redeployment could leave other areas vulnerable.
White said the situation was “dynamic” but cautioned that the rebel approach appeared to be ad hoc.
“The rebels have managed to get reinforcements into the city, and they are also getting ammunition, which is important, but it is unclear whether they are using a particular route,” he said.
“But I don’t see any real evidence that there is some grand plan here or that this is being coordinated or commanded at a higher level. It doesn’t appear that they have a system in place.”
“The Tawhid brigade may have weakened their presence in Aleppo.”
“Meanwhile, my feeling is that Hezbollah intends to do whatever it takes to defend the regime wherever they need to. And that means deep commitment.”