BEIRUT -- Hezbollah and Syrian government forces have seized most of the strategically important town of Qusayr near the Lebanese border, fighters on both sides of the conflict said Wednesday, in what would be a huge setback for the rebels fighting to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
A fighter for Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that’s sent troops to Syria to join Assad loyalist forces, said the group had cleared rebels from most of Qusayr. A spokesman for one of the main rebel groups in the area confirmed the assertion.
“We have suffered heavy losses,” said Yazed al Hasan, a spokesman for the rebel Farouq Battalions, which have occupied Qusayr since last year. He also acknowledged that government forces had recaptured the military airport north of the city.
The Hezbollah fighter, who asked to be referred to only as Ayoub, a pseudonym, because Hezbollah’s leadership hadn’t authorized him to speak to reporters, said his group’s strategists had divided Qusayr “on a grid into 16 squares.”
“We have cleared 13 of them,” he said.
Ayoub was in Beirut on leave from the fighting and had last been in Syria four days ago, but he said he’d stayed in touch with developments and expected to return to Syria on Sunday.
The fighting in Qusayr is out of reach of Western reporters, and it’s difficult to know for certain how the battle is unfolding. While reports from either side in the conflict often are tailored to present a favorable picture, the willingness of the Farouq spokesman to confirm Ayoub’s account suggests that it’s accurate.
The battle for Qusayr is considered a key test for the rebels, who’d held the city for more than a year, and for the government, which has been mounting a fierce counteroffensive against rebels in recent weeks on several fronts throughout the country. Qusayr sits astride a key route for rebels bringing weapons and other supplies into the country from Lebanon. The city also is an important link between Syria’s capital, Damascus, and government-held areas along the country’s Mediterranean coast.
The fight for Qusayr also is a major test for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that’s had fighters in Syria for months but whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, acknowledged the extent of their role only last week.
The United States, which considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, has denounced its involvement in Syria and demanded Wednesday that it withdraw. "This is an unacceptable and extremely dangerous escalation. We demand that Hezbollah withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately," State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said.
That seemed unlikely, however. Ayoub indicated that Hezbollah may be planning to expand its operations in support of the Syrian government.
“I’m not sure if it will be to Qusayr or to Aleppo,” he said of his upcoming return, referring to Syria’s largest city. Rebels took over about half that city almost a year ago, before fighting settled into a stalemate. Ayoub said Hezbollah was also active in fighting around Damascus, something Iraqis who’ve recently returned from Syria have confirmed.
Ayoub didn’t say how many Hezbollah fighters had taken part in the Qusayr action, but he said Hezbollah had assumed the leading role in the assault after an incident last week in which rockets fired by the Syrian military accidentally killed 18 Hezbollah fighters.
He acknowledged that Hezbollah had lost about 100 men in the fighting but said that was far fewer than the Lebanese group had anticipated. “We had planned for as many as 1,000 martyrs,” he said. “Our enemy there has had time to dig in, and knows the terrain.”
Ayoub said the operations taking place now amounted to “cleanup” and that only a few of Qusayr’s northern neighborhoods remained under rebel control. Those areas were taking longer to secure, he said, because rebels had booby-trapped them with bombs and had dug tunnels and other fortifications.
There were no official casualty figures. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based organization that tracks Syrian casualties on both sides of the conflict, said few rebel casualties had been reported. The Syrian government news agency, SANA, reported that “scores of terrorists” had been killed in Qusayr-related operations. The government refers to the rebels as terrorists.
It was unclear what had become of thousands of civilians reportedly trapped in Qusayr. Many have fled south to Yabrud, a rebel-held city about 30 miles from Qusayr. A rebel spokesman in Yabrud said Wednesday that people were continuing to arrive from Qusayr. He denied, however, that Assad loyalists were moving toward Yabrud and had rocketed the city.
Ayoub said Hezbollah’s forces were now focused on completing their seizure of the military airport near the city of Dabaa, north of Qusayr, which has been under rebel control for months. Hasan, the Farouq spokesman, confirmed that report, saying the airport had fallen to pro-Assad forces Wednesday afternoon.
SANA also reported that pro-Assad forces were in control of the airport. “The army is currently searching for any remaining terrorists hiding in it and pursuing fleeing terrorists after eliminating most of the gunmen who were in it and injuring others,” the government news agency said.
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has prompted concern that the fighting might spread to Lebanon, whose politics are closely linked to Syria. Syrian rebels have threatened to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon, though so far the assaults have been limited to rocket attacks against the Hezbollah stronghold of Hermel, in Lebanon, and four rockets fired Sunday into a southern neighborhood in Beirut.
While the rocket attacks on Hermel killed two civilians, Ayoub admitted Wednesday that Hermel had been used to fire rockets at Qusayr for at least the last five months, corroborating a long-standing rebel complaint.
Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon remain on high alert, particularly in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold.
“There is no time off,” Ayoub said, when he was asked how he was spending his week away from the front line.