Qusayr resisting all-out attack

Alex Rowell & Yara Chehayed

May 20, 2013 Contrary to claims made by the Syrian regime, opposition sources say much of Qusayr still lies in rebel hands
Map showing Qusayr and surrounding villages
A map showing the military status of Qusayr and its surrounding villages (Source: NOW/Opposition activists) The streets of the western Syrian town of Al-Qusayr were enveloped in clouds of grey cement powder on Sunday as President Bashar al-Assad's air and ground forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen, commenced a long-awaited major assault on the lynchpin rebel-held town and its surrounding villages. Humanitarian observers including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, have warned that this may lead to massacres reminiscent of those in the coastal towns of al-Bayda and Banias earlier in the month.

At least 58 Qusayr residents were killed Sunday – many of them civilians – and over 600 wounded in continuous air and artillery strikes, according to local opposition spokesman Hadi al-Abdallah. He also claimed some 30 Hezbollah fighters had been killed by rebel forces. Syrian state TV reported 100 opposition militants dead, with no mention of regime casualties. NOW was unable to reach the Hezbollah press office for confirmation of the Party's losses.

Regime fighter jets continued to pound residential quarters of the town center Monday, according to Al-Abdallah, as contradictory reports emerged regarding the territorial gains made by Assad loyalists. While regime soldiers claimed Sunday to have conquered the central town square, raising the Syrian flag over the municipality building, numerous opposition sources asserted that no territory had been lost by the rebels whatsoever.

"It's not true what the regime is claiming," said Qusayr-based activist, Ahmad al-Qusayr. "They're saying this to raise the morale of the fighters, because the rebels are giving them a beating."

Indeed, Al-Qusayr was confident that the rebels could and would withstand the attack. "The Free Syrian Army is still there on every corner and they have increased their defenses to face any invasion. They will fight until the last drop of blood," he told NOW.

Though such claims are impossible to verify, there is evidence that rebels have put up stiff resistance thus far. A video purportedly filmed Sunday night shows a number of destroyed regime tanks and the corpse of an apparent Hezbollah fighter – one of a number of similar videos uploaded by the opposition in recent days.

Indeed, the past few weeks have seen a significant escalation in the comparatively low-intensity war of attrition that has been underway in Qusayr since it fell to rebel brigades in February 2012. Meeting with Lebanese allies one month ago, Assad reportedly described the fighting in Qusayr as the "main battle" in all of Syria, one that must be won "at any cost." On 11 May, regime sources said they warned civilians to leave the town (a claim denied by the opposition) as an attack was imminent, and on 13 May, Abdallah reported the arrival of 30 regime tanks in the Qusayr countryside, sparking "very violent battles." The following day, AFP reported the fall of three rebel-held villages to loyal Assad forces – Dameina al-Gharbiyah, Eish al-Warwar and Haidariyeh – situated between Qusayr town and the allied neighborhoods of Homs, with sights set next on the rebels' captured military base at al-Dabaa.

The town and its surroundings are deemed strategic for two key reasons. First, lying just 10km from the Lebanese border, it acts as the major buffer between the Hezbollah-controlled northeast Beqaa Valley and the rebel-held area of Homs. In the words of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman, "If the army manages to take control of Al-Qusayr, the whole province of Homs will fall."

Second, it flanks the main highway linking Damascus to the coastal Alawite heartland north of Lebanon, the principal bastion of support for the regime to which some analysts believe Assad may flee in the event that Damascus falls to the rebels.

Given this strategic importance, the town has also been a magnet for Lebanese militants opposed to the regime. As fighting intensified last month, prominent Salafist clerics Ahmad al-Assir and Salem al-Rafei issued calls for "jihad" against Assad loyalists in Qusayr, with several hundred reportedly signing on to assist their allies across the border. Yet long before these calls, anti-Assad Lebanese were known to be fighting in Qusayr. NOW met and interviewed one last October who had battled regime and Hezbollah forces there as early as May 2012.

As the indiscriminate loyalist assault continues, however, the stakes are not only strategic but humanitarian, according to local opposition sources.

"There are 40,000 civilians in the Qusayr town," said Muhammad Radwan Raad, a Homs-based activist. "They have no water, no electricity, and no safe passage to escape. Already, some families have been bombarded while trying to flee. We don't know what to do with them," he told NOW.

"If the situation continues as it is, there will be no Qusayr in the future."

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting
  • johnSyria

    What this article doesn't mention is that Assad's forces did a leaflet drop on the town before the assault so the rebels surrender and there's a corridor where civilians can leave for safe passage. No civilian is safe in a war zone. This is the case in any war you can think of. If the rebels, lets say, surrendered, then no civilians will be killed by the government. However, it becomes a military target if rebels don't surrender as the town is full of rebels with guns hiding in buildings waiting to kill any government soldier that comes in

    May 25, 2013