Syrian rebel forces opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad abandoned Qusayr Wednesday to the Syrian Army and fighters from Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah. The seizure of the strategic town after a fierce 17-day battle marks a significant victory for the Assad regime and for Hezbollah, which has triumphed in its first major engagement of the Syrian war.
Retaking Qusayr will help strengthen the regime’s control of the key highway linking Damascus to the coastal port of Tartous, which bypasses Qusayr. It also severs what was an important transit point for the flow of fighters, weapons, and ammunition from neighboring Lebanon which lies five miles to the south of Qusayr.
The loss of Qusayr will represent a psychological blow to rebel forces, which have been reeling from a number of tactical setbacks on the battlefield in the past two months. Compounding opposition woes is a slow down in the flow of arms to rebel groups and bitter infighting between the political leadership of the opposition that is weakening its credibility in the international community.
Syrian state media and the Hezbollah-run Al-Manar television station, which has a reporter in Qusayr, said that the town had fallen in the morning.
“The Syrian Army totally controls the Qusayr region in Homs Province after killing a large number of terrorists and capturing others,” Syrian state television said, using the regime’s term for the rebels.
Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, said that the fall of Qusayr was a blow to the United States, Israel, and “Takfiri” groups, Sunni extremists who view as apostates those who do not share their austere interpretation of Islam.
“The victory in Qusayr is a sharp blow to the American-Israeli-Takfiri project and a glowing moment for the resistance project in Syria and there is no point to the cries of the international and regional political media in trying to change the historic and geographic realities,” he said.
Al-Manar broadcast footage of mainly deserted streets, some of them heavily damaged from artillery shelling and air strikes. Several bodies were shown lying in the rubble.
Rebels vow to press on
While acknowledging a sharp setback, rebel forces vowed to persist in their bid to topple Assad.
“Yes, our brothers, this is a round that we have lost,” said the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution on its Facebook page. But it added that the rebels “will continue to fight the thousands of Lebanese mercenaries,” a reference to Hezbollah.
The National Coalition, the main Syrian opposition body, said that the “blessed revolution” would continue despite the setback.
“Victory is on the side of the righteous,” it said in a statement, calling on the international community to “put a stop to the Assad regime’s vengeful practices.”
While the recent tactical advances by the Syrian Army – especially in the Eastern Ghouta area east of Damascus and in Qusayr – have delivered a blow to the rebels, the war is far from being won by the regime.
A diplomatic report this week from a European embassy seen by the Monitor noted that Hezbollah "has given the regime a much-needed injection of fresh forces to conduct offensive operations." It added, "It is unrealistic that it can give the regime the opportunity to capture significant areas back from the rebels, but it may make it impossible even in the medium term for the rebels to tip the military balance."
Hezbollah's special forces
Hezbollah dispatched around 1,200 combatants from its special forces units to spearhead the assault on Qusayr, according to Hajj Abbas, a veteran combatant with the Shiite group who recently returned to Lebanon after a weeklong spell fighting in the town.
Rumors of Hezbollah involvement in the Syria war have swirled for two years, but it was only last month, amid an upsurge in combat fatalities, that the group's leadership admitted to its extensive role in assisting the Assad regime against rebel forces.
“It was like fighting in a refugee camp. The buildings were so close, we were clearing them not meter by meter but centimeter by centimeter,” he says, using the pseudonym Hajj Abbas because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
As the Hezbollah squads of three to five combatants each pressed deeper into Qusayr, they encountered elaborate booby-trapped houses, roadside bombs, and tunnels dug by the rebel defenders.
“We had a suspicion that some of the roadside bombs we uncovered were the same as the ones we taught Hamas in Gaza to build,” Hajj Abbas said with a rueful smile. The Palestinian Hamas Movement, a Sunni organization, was once a close ally of Hezbollah and the Assad regime. But it broke from Damascus last year and has sided with the Syrian opposition.
First major urban offensive
The battle for Qusayr saw the heaviest fighting experienced by Hezbollah since the monthlong war against its traditional enemy Israel in 2006. Hezbollah has not released a tally of casualties, but opposition sources have said between 70 and 110 fighters from the group were killed in Qusayr.
While Hezbollah defended towns and villages in its native south Lebanon in the 2006 war, the struggle for Qusayr is the first time that the group has mounted a major offensive operation in an urban environment. Since 2006, Hezbollah combatants have been augmenting their traditional hit-and-run guerrilla tactics by learning to fight in populated areas, practicing at mock-up urban warfare training sites in Iran and at smaller facilities in Lebanon.
“It was a difficult environment for us at first because we don’t know the area. The buildings are different, the terrain is different. But we are well-trained soldiers and we are trained to adapt, so we just got on with it,” Hajj Abbas says.
He had little respect for his opponents, whom he said were members of the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, although there were a number of different factions operating in Qusayr, according to numerous YouTube videos.
Asked how he rated his enemy, Hajj Abbas simply pointed to a television screen where Al-Manar was broadcasting footage of Syrian soldiers moving through empty buildings in Qusayr.
“If they were any good, they would still be there,” he says. “Jabhat al-Nusra is the enemy of God. They are terrorists.”
Prior to the onset of the campaign, Hezbollah commanders divided Qusayr into operational zones and assigned code numbers to different locations and objectives. The rebels on several occasions intercepted and recorded Hezbollah radio communications, but the use of verbal codes helped disguise the content.
After a few days of fighting, Syrian state media claimed that Syrian troops had reached the center of the town and raised the national flag over the municipality building. But subsequent video footage uploaded to YouTube showed rebels still present in the town center. The Syrian Army and Hezbollah also were not able to fully complete the encirclement of Qusayr, which allowed some reinforcements to slip through from the north.
But dwindling ammunition supplies ensured that it was only a matter of time before the rebel defense buckled.
“We squashed them into the northern part of the town and then pinned them down with sniper fire,” Hajj Abbas says.
The final push
The final push came early Wednesday morning with a heavy artillery barrage of northern Qusayr quickly followed by an assault from Hezbollah units. The remaining opposition fighters slipped out of Qusayr along a narrow corridor of territory still under their control to reach the villages of Dabaa and Buwaydah al-Sharqiyah, a few miles to the north.
The fall of Qusayr will free up the elite Hezbollah fighters for fresh engagements elsewhere. Hajj Abbas said that the focus would now turn to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city in the north which has been contested for months.
As a veteran of the 2006 war against Israel and a member of Hezbollah’s special forces, Hajj Abbas could barely disguise the relish he felt to be in combat once more.
“We are soldiers,” he says. “We don’t sit behind desks. This is what we are trained to do.”