Media belonging to the Syrian regime and its allies Hizbollah and Iran rang with proclamations of victory on Wednesday as news of the rebels’ defeat in the strategic border city of Qusair spread throughout the Middle East.
The fall of Qusair, a vital hub on rebel supply routes to the Lebanese border, is in itself unlikely to turn the tide of the conflict. But it represents an important victory for the regime in its strategy of mobilising Shia allies to combat mainly Sunni and sometimes extremist rebels. Analysts fear that it could mark the beginning of an even more sectarian phase of Syria’s turmoil.
There has also been speculation that the regime and its allies might use the momentum to mount a new offensive in the northern city of Aleppo, where government and rebel forces have been stalemated for almost a year.
After pummelling Qusair with air strikes and shelling for more than two weeks, government forces, backed by Hizbollah, pushed the rebels into the eastern quarter of the city on Tuesday night, according to one activist. On Wednesday morning, the rebels issued a statement saying they were withdrawing from the city.
Syrian state news said later that the army had “restored security and stability to the whole city of al-Qusair”.
Hizbollah’s television station credited the Syrian army with the victory and showed images of armoured vehicles rolling into the ravaged city. Iran’s semi-official news agency said the country’s foreign minister had called his Syrian counterpart to congratulate his government on “cleansing” Qusair of armed groups.
Qusair has been in a state of siege since the offensive began, and opposition sources had said there were up to 1,000 wounded civilians trapped and cut off from medical supplies.
It was not clear what their fate was on Wednesday. According to a local reporter near the Syrian-Lebanese border, pro-regime forces may have allowed an escape route to the village of Debaa to encourage the rebels to withdraw.
Qusair is the most prominent in a series of strategic gains the regime has made in recent weeks, as it seeks to consolidate a security zone from its coastal heartlands down along the Lebanese border to the capital and the south. It has been boosted by the increasing involvement of its allies – Iran and the Lebanese Shia militant group Hizbollah, which Tehran backs.
The battle for Qusair, 10km from the Lebanese border, is the first in which Hizbollah has played an overtly prominent role.
The rebels’ statement said their withdrawal had been forced by “this huge arsenal and lack of supplies and the blatant intervention of Hizbollah”.
The head of the largely exiled political opposition’s main group sought to play down Wednesday’s defeat, describing it as just “one round” in a wider struggle.
President Bashar al-Assad’s government is likely to hail Qusair as a key victory. A Syrian army general told Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen television that “whoever controls Qusair controls the centre of the country, and whoever controls the centre of the country controls all of Syria”.
Analysts, however, said that while its capture cemented the regime’s control of supply routes in central Syria and across the Lebanese border, the purely military importance of Qusair had been exaggerated by both sides. The rebels’ movements in central Syria had been severely restricted for some time, and the Jordanian and Turkish borders were much more important sources of supplies.
Nevertheless, this remains a symbolic victory for the regime, and may pave the way for further internationalisation and sectarianisation of the conflict, according to Peter Harling, of the International Crisis Group.
He said: “It was an entry point for Hizbollah in terms of shifting its own narrative. It’s hard to go to Aleppo without first crossing a number of thresholds – now they presumably can go all the way.
“One could even imagine a worst-case scenario where the conflict further escalates, leading the regime to allow Iraqis in, in large numbers. The fall of Qusair ushers in a whole new set of dynamics.”
Wednesday’s rebel setback comes as the US and Russia are due to meet to discuss a planned peace conference in Geneva.
Emile Hokayem, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said he expected Russia, which is allied to Damascus, to press for a prompt start to negotiations.
But the regime may now be reluctant to interrupt its progress on the military front.
Mr Harling said: “My fear is that the regime will over-reach. They can realise this is a good time to deal, or they can get carried away by their victories which are tactical, not strategic.”
Source: FT.com – About the author: ABIGAIL FIELDING-SMITH is Beirut Correspondent for the Financial Times, for whom she has been covering the uprisings in Syria and Yemen.