QUSAIR, Syria: The Syrian army will confront rebels across the country after making a decisive victory in the key town of Qusair early Wednesday, further tipping the military balance in the regime’s favor in the country’s civil war, it said in a statement Wednesday.
“We will not hesitate to crush with an iron fist those who attack us. ... Their fate is surrender or death,” the Syrian armed forces command said in a rare statement read on state television. “We will continue our string of victories until we regain every inch of Syrian land.”
The capture, the army declared, was a “clear message to all those participating in the aggression against Syria” – a statement clearly directed at the rebels’ regional backers, that the regime believes the tide is turning in the war.
The scene of fierce battles for over two weeks, Qusair had taken on symbolic value for both the regime and the opposition forces battling to topple President Bashar Assad.
The strategic town, close to the Lebanese border held by rebels for over 18 months had been a centerpiece of rebel resistance to the Assad regime.
It also forms an important link in a months-long offensive by Assad forces, buoyed by support from his Iranian and Russian backers, to retake control of territory stretching from the capital Damascus, to Homs in the center, the Lebanese border, and north to Aleppo and Assad’s Alawite coastal heartland. A member of a pro-Assad Syrian militia said the military focus may now move to the northern province of Aleppo, largely in rebel hands for the last year.
Syrian regime forces, with strong support from Hezbollah, seized control of the border town of Qusair in a blistering dawn offensive. By early morning, they held the whole town and rebel forces, which had called on support from rebel battalions from across the country to join the fight, admitted they were forced to withdraw.
In a statement posted on the “Qusair Revolution” Facebook page, the rebels said they had pulled out “in face of this huge arsenal and a lack of supplies and the blatant intervention of Hezbollah.”
In a frank assessment of their defeat, an opposition group from the town said over 500 rebels had died in two weeks of combat, with a further 1,000 wounded, leaving just 400 outgunned men struggling to hold onto the town.
Facing determined Hezbollah fighters, who swung the fight Assad’s way, the survivors decided to escape in the night through a corridor that the attackers said they had deliberately left open to encourage flight. Most fled with thousands of civilians, many of them wounded, to Eastern Bwaida, the only village in the area still under opposition control, or onward to rural Homs to the east of the town.
“We have nothing here, no medicine and barely any food. ... And now the bombing on Eastern Bwaida is crazy. We cannot possibly take care of the displaced,” said activist Abu al-Moatasem.
The Syrian government had denied humanitarian access to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and International Red Cross until military operations were completed. A report on Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV said access may be granted Thursday.
Despite the setback, the military and political opposition vowed to fight on, saying the revolution would not be stopped. At a news conference in Istanbul, George Sabra, acting head of the main Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, said the battle for Qusair was just “one round” in a larger fight to “liberate Syria.” He slammed Iran and Hezbollah’s “murderous” involvement and warned Hezbollah’s role in Syria would deepen the Sunni-Shiite rift in the region.
And, underlining the risks for Lebanon, the head of the rebel Free Syria Army warned it might target Hezbollah on its home turf. “Hezbollah fighters are invading Syrian territory. And when they continue to do that and the Lebanese authorities don’t take any action to stop them coming to Syria, I think we are allowed to fight Hezbollah fighters inside [Lebanese] territory,” Salim Idriss told the BBC.
“Our revolution will continue. Even if all of us die here, revolutionaries in other provinces will continue fighting,” the activist Moatasem said from Bwaida.
In Qusair itself, the scale of the offensive was evident. Two weeks of heavy fighting reduced much of the town to piles of concrete, whole blocks flattened by shelling, with glass and rubble littering the roads.
Street after deserted street lay in ruins, windows blown out, facades crumpled and trees blackened and burnt. The dome of the local mosque was damaged by rocket fire, and the walls of a church smashed open. Some bodies still lay in the street; at least three men, sporting long beards, appeared to have been executed.
Accompanying reporters on a tour of the town, Syrian army officers pointed out tunnels and underground arms depots abandoned by the rebels.
A two-story building used as a hospital was littered with blood-stained bandages, and the stench of death hung in the air. A man’s leg lay discarded on the floor.
Hezbollah fighters circled the center of the town in black SUVs.
The group said Wednesday that the fall of Qusair showed the Syrian president was secure in power. “Today we proved without any doubt that the gamble to topple Syria is a delusional plan,” said deputy leader Naim Qassem.
A senior Lebanese political source close to Hezbollah said the victory was a strategic success that would boost the morale of Assad’s allies. He suggested that Hezbollah would not necessarily intervene directly in other battles but might offer indirect help to the Syrian army. “The battle will continue in all regions, but I believe Aleppo [will be] first,” he added.