BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces have retaken a town on the Lebanese border as they press an offensive against rebels in a conflict that has now cost more than 100,000 lives, activists said Wednesday.
The army took full control of Tal Kalakh, driving out insurgents and ending an unofficial truce under which it had allowed a small rebel presence to remain for several months.
The fall of Tal Kalakh, 3 km from the border with Lebanon, marks another gain for Assad after the capture of the rebel stronghold of Qusair this month, and consolidates his control around the central city of Homs, which links Damascus to his Alawite heartland overlooking the Mediterranean coast.
Like Qusair, Tal Kalakh was used by rebels in the early stages of the conflict as a transit point for weapons and fighters smuggled into Syria to join the fight against Assad.
Pro-Assad websites showed video footage of soldiers patrolling the town in armored cars and on foot.
“Terrorist groups infiltrated and terrorized the local people,” an army officer said in the video. “In response to the request of the local people, the army entered Tal Kalakh to cleanse the area and restore security.”
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group, said rebels left the town Tuesday, retreating toward the nearby Crusader fort of Crac des Chevaliers.
Six months ago, Assad’s opponents were challenging the president’s grip on parts of Damascus, but are now under fierce military pressure there, while their supply lines from Jordan and Lebanon have steadily been choked off.
In response to Assad’s gains, achieved with the support of Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters who spearheaded the assault on Qusair, Arab nations pledged over the weekend to send urgent military aid to the rebels.
Radical Sunni militants from abroad, some of them linked to Al-Qaeda, are also coming in to fight alongside the rebels.
The role of Hezbollah and foreign Sunni forces has highlighted the increase sectarian and regional dimensions of the war.
Several Gulf states including Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, Washington’s key ally and a foe of Iran, back the rebels. Tehran, a Shiite powerhouse, supports Assad.
Saudi Arabia is sending lethal aid to the rebels. The United States also said it would provide military support to the opposition despite the Obama administration’s reluctance to send heavier arms for fear they might end up in the hands of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.
Exemplifying this regional polarization, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi lashed out at Saudi Arabia, accusing the Gulf kingdom of backing “terrorists” after Riyadh condemned Damascus for enlisting fighters from its Lebanese ally in its struggle with rebels.
His remarks were carried late Tuesday by the state news agency SANA after Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Jeddah and condemned Assad for bolstering his army with fighters from Hezbollah. Prince Saud charged that Syria faces a “foreign invasion.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah II also warned that the war could ignite conflict across the region unless global powers helped to convene peace talks soon.
“It has become clear to all that the Syrian crisis may extend from being a civil war to a regional and sectarian conflict ... the extent of which is unknown,” the monarch told Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper in an interview. “It is time for a more serious Arab and international coordination to stop the deterioration of the Syrian crisis. The situation cannot wait any longer,” he added.
Despite Obama’s plans to increase support for the opposition, Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that military options were not on the table.
“This is not Libya. It is very different in many, many ways,” Kerry told reporters in Kuwait City in response to a question on why there had been no military intervention in Syria as during Libya’s 2011 armed uprising.
“There is no military solution here ... We need to reach out for a diplomatic solution” through negotiations in the Swiss city of Geneva, Kerry said.
Washington and Moscow have been working together to organize a conference in Geneva that would bring rebels and regime representatives to the negotiating table, but the two sides have failed on agree on Assad’s fate.
As diplomats failed to reach a deal to halt bloodshed, the Observatory said the death toll in the war had risen above 100,000 – making it by far the deadliest of the uprisings to have swept the region.
The group – which monitors violence through a network of security and medical sources in Syria – said the figure included 18,000 rebel fighters and about 40,000 soldiers and pro-Assad militiamen. But the true number of combatants killed was likely to be double that due to both sides’ secrecy in reporting casualties, it said.
In addition to the casualties, it said, 10,000 people were detained by pro-Assad forces and 2,500 soldiers and loyalist militiamen had been captured by the rebels.
The United Nations has put the death toll from the 27-month-old conflict at 93,000 by the end of April.