The Battle for Qusayr: What Victory in Syria’s Latest Front Means for the War

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JOSEPH EID / AFP / Getty Images

Syrian troops take control of the village of Western Dumayna, some 7 km north of the rebel-held city of Qusayr on May 13, 2013

Fighting continued for a fifth straight day in the strategic Syrian city of Qusayr, as opposition forces fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad sought desperately to maintain their slipping grip in a battle that could dictate the direction of the war. As government tanks, artillery and warplanes pounded rebel positions throughout the city, fighters engaged in sniper attacks and small forays against government ground troops seeking to take terrain. Rebel fighters are calling it one of the worst ground battles of the war.

“In some areas the fight is within three-meters diameter, and you are able to hear them yelling and crying in the battlefield,” Abu al-Baraa, a field commander from the Jabhat al-Nusra in Qusayr, tells TIME by telephone from Tripoli, where he is recovering from wounds gained earlier in the week. Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra is fighting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, a loose confederation of volunteers, jihadists and opportunists aligned against the regime. Al-Baraa says he is in constant contact with his men at the front. “Now the battle is centralized in the eastern side of Qusayr, and our mujahedin are teaching [the Syrian government forces] hard lessons which, God willing, they will never forget.” He says his brigade has more than 2,000 fighters willing to sacrifice their lives to prevent Qusayr from being taken back by regime forces. Assad’s supporters are equally ferocious in their desire to retake the city, which has been under rebel control for several months.

(MORE: The Belgian Teen Now Fighting in Syria)

Qusayr, a city of 30,000, straddles a key transit corridor between the Syrian capital of Damascus and the coast. Victory in Qusayr allows the regime easy access to the Mediterranean port city of Tartus, where Russian tankers can supply both oil and weapons in case the Damascus airport is destroyed. Tartus is also the entryway to a coastal region dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect — an essential refuge for the President and his supporters should Damascus fall. “No doubt Qusayr is a strategic city for the Rafidah,” says al-Baraa, using a derogatory name for Alawites, meaning rejecters, or apostates. “It is the main city that will allow them to link their state together.”

For the rebels, Qusayr is an important logistics hub. Weapons and supplies can easily be smuggled over the porous Lebanese border, 10 km away, and fighters, like al-Baraa, use safe houses across the border for rest and recovery. Members of Hizballah, an Iranian-linked Shi‘ite militia based in Lebanon, have gone across the border in the opposite direction to help the regime, raising fears of a regional and sectarian conflagration. With more than 80,000 killed in a civil war that has gone on for more than two years, the fight for Qusayr is seen as a pivotal test by both sides. George Sabra, acting head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition based in Turkey, reiterated the importance of Qusayr in a statement calling for reinforcements of men and weapons on Wednesday, citing concerns about sectarian violence and “foreign invaders” from Hizballah and Iran. “Everyone who has weapons or ammunition should send them to Qusayr and Homs to strengthen its resistance. Every bullet sent to Qusayr and Homs will block the invasion that is trying to drag Syria back to the era of fear.”

(MORE: Why Syria’s Rebels Aren’t Winning)

In a war where journalists have limited access, the propaganda battle of Qusayr is equally vociferous. The government news agency SANA claims to have taken half the city, whereas a local government official from the district governor’s office told the Associated Press that 80% of Qusayr was in government hands. Rebel fighters in the western part of the city, where the fighting is most fierce, told TIME by Skype that the FSA has 60% of the city. “We still control the center of Qusayr and the west,” says activist Abu Islam, speaking from the FSA’s Qusayr media center. As proof, he pointed out that the media center was able to run on generator power and he could speak safely using the Internet. On Twitter, rebels, activists and government supporters traded taunts and crowed over successes. “So far we have the bodies of 50 pigs,” al-Baraa told TIME, using an extremely pejorative term for anyone of the Muslim faith. Then, using a play on words that twisted the meaning of Hizballah, or Party of God, into party of idol worshipers, he said “Hizb el-Lat already lost 70 fighters under the strikes of our mujahedin, and if they continue the number will be more than 700.” Others in Qusayr projected weary defiance. One doctor, filmed at a makeshift field hospital where he attended wounded civilians and rebel fighters, said that half the houses in the city had been destroyed, that scores had been injured and that there was a shortage of “everything.” Still, he declared: “We will not surrender, and Qusayr will not fall.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a meeting with the Friends of Syria group in Amman on Wednesday, admitted that the regime had “made some gains in the last few days but this has gone up and down like a seesaw.” Kerry told reporters that Assad was “miscalculating” if he thought the advances would be decisive. But hopeful predictions that the regime is on its last legs are just that — hopeful. For nearly a year observers have spoken of the government’s imminent collapse, only to be proved wrong again and again. As long as Syria has the support of Iran and Russia, it is unlikely to fall no matter how well armed the rebels.

(MORE: Top Russian Diplomat Explains Why Moscow Arms Damascus)

Victory in Qusayr, for either side, will have long-term implications, not just for Syria but for the region. The U.S., Russia and the international community are preparing for a summit next month that hopes to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. By reasserting its military superiority in Qusayr, and by extension the west of the country, before the summit, the regime will be able to transform its military advances into a stronger negotiating position. For Russia this means keeping Tartus, its only warm-water port, in the hands of a close ally, even if the rest of the country falls to the rebels. For Iran, it means keeping a conduit open to its proxy, Hizballah. For that reason alone, Israel will keep a close eye on what happens next in Qusayr. “There are several thousands of Hizballah militia forces on the ground in Syria who are contributing to this violence, and we condemn that,” said Kerry at the Friends of Syria meeting, referring to Qusayr. If the regime can consolidate power from Damascus to the coast in a swath of territory that flanks northern Lebanon and Hizballah’s Lebanese heartland of the Bekaa Valley, the opportunity for weapons transfer from Iran to the sworn enemy of Israel via the Syrian capital will be even stronger. The Israelis have already targeted Syrian military positions three times under the suspicion that they were being used as transit points for weapons destined for Hizballah in Lebanon.

But the greatest risk of a regime success in Qusayr would most likely fall on its vulnerable neighbor, Lebanon. The conflict has already spilled into the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where Alawites and Sunni Muslims have fought pitched street battles, killing 14 since Sunday. Rebel commanders in Syria, and Sunni religious leaders in Lebanon, have hinted at sectarian revenge attacks against Shi‘ites and Alawites on both sides of the border should Qusayr fall, laying the groundwork for a regional sectarian conflict.

— With reporting by Rami Aysha / Beirut

30 comments
azmalhome
azmalhome

 Some countries regionally are turmoil recently, they’re making burning with each other by taking the weapon from developing countries. They’re so busy to increasing the turmoil for getting something newly, Because of some richest leaders is helping freedom fighters monopoly to doing a good trade after terminating the war.

http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/islamic-terrorism/



OswaldSpengler
OswaldSpengler

You wondering after years of War against Terror how wonderfull and loving these al-Queida men really are described in the times when they fight in syria.Al-Queida is the CIAs pseudogang and was it all the way.

JhonSmith
JhonSmith

These rebels are cowards. No money from american and Saudi masters means they run away. I believe after the war, Assad must change the way the Syrian government works, but for now, these puppet fighters must fall. HA is exceptional at fighting terrorists... look at how mighty the israeli terrorists believed they were...

BrianMack
BrianMack

Hail Doctor Bashar al Assad and the Syrian Arabic Army; may they slaughter the American, Jewish and Saudi funded jihadist dogs. The war in Syria is not about freedom; it’s about three things: creating an Islamic state, creating a corrupt leader the USA can control, and destabilizing the Middle East so America will buy Israel more weapons.

  

AureliusMarc
AureliusMarc

We should be supporting Syria as it defends itself against terrorists.

RaedAdal
RaedAdal

@arynebaker @TIMEWorld If pigs is vital in their vocabulary,I wonder what kinds of regime they will promote, thanks for being so biased. Sad

RaedAdal
RaedAdal

@arynebaker @TIMEWorld I pigs is vital in their vocabulary, I wonder what kinds of regime they will promote, thanks for bring so biased. Sad

SyedAliHaider
SyedAliHaider

This is a very biased piece of Journalism, The Journalist did not know the real situation in Qusayr where terrorists are fleeing leaving Israeli weapons behind.

SebastianX
SebastianX

@hlk01 Summary: totally clueless journo outputs a truckload of hearsay and misunderstood propaganda. @arynebaker do your research!

VictoriaRicciano
VictoriaRicciano

@JhonSmith, Assad is very brave instead...  is so so so so brave!!!  Here is the brave soldier so bravely sending the Syrian air force against their own cities!!!  Killing their own civilians!!  What to do about the PR?? easy..  every civilian killed is tagged "terrorist"....   I will never get to understand the permittivity and cruelty on the Islam

jz
jz

cowards cause they don't have powerful weapon like the terrorist saa aligned w/ the terror organization hisballah? you are a joke.

jz
jz

@smd1900 @Alexblx 

with warplanes and tanks? it's no even match. Rebels have made gains with nothing but pistols and machine guns. Imagine if they had antiaircraft and anti tank weapons? the coward terrorist saa aligned with foreigners from iran, Russia and Lebanon that massacre women and children would be dead in the water.

jz
jz

@AureliusMarc 

We should be supporting the saa defectors and Syrian civilians fighting tyranny and foreign terrorism from hizbollah, iran and Russian invaders killing Syrians. assad and his foreign imported terrorism must leave.

jz
jz

@SyedAliHaider 

You're a fool. Rebels get their arms from the black market. The minute Israel and the west really start arming them with real weapons and not just pistols, this game will be over for assad. Enjoy your short lived victory for the rebels won't always just have pistols to fight with. This is a disproportionate fight for now. And soon these foreign invaders from lebannon, Russia and iran will have a fight on their hands.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Russia does not supply offensive weapons to Syria

Russia supplies to Syria only defensive weapons, which cannot be used for internal struggle, such as air defense and coastal missile systems for the protection of the sovereignty. All of this armament supplied under the old obligations and does not violate UN resolutions.

Russian Vice-Premier Dmitry Rogozin said that Russia is not supplying Syria anything forbidden by the international sanctions in the sphere of military-technical cooperation.

"We are continuing to those contracts that have been concluded for a long time"

"No one can ever show of the Russian Federation no claims in this regard, and the control over exports of arms in our country tougher, than in many other countries" - added Rogozin.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@jz@Alexblx 

External assistance to the opposition, which leads the armed struggle against the legitimate government, is a gross violation of fundamental rules of international law. In the Declaration on principles of international law, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1970, it is noted, in particular, that no state shall organize, assist, and financing of armed actions aimed at the violent overthrow of the regime of another state.
 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov: Arming Syrian Opposition Contradicts the International law

NickAbbott
NickAbbott

@jz @AureliusMarc We should be staying the hell out of it. This would have already been over if the Gulf states weren't pumping weaponry and funds to terrorists. The opposition can't even create a unified voice to bargain with. Sometimes maybe best to leave the dice alone. Oh and also, why is wrong in Syria but OK in Bahrain? .... could it be..... OIL?

NickAbbott
NickAbbott

@jz @SyedAliHaider They get their weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar mainly. Saudi is the primary financier for the rebels in this war for democracy. Saudi funding a war... for democracy... see the irony? Sad thing is I think Assad is their best option right now.

If the West chooses to arm the 'rebels', then it will come back to haunt them big time.

A lot of the rebels aren't fighting for democracy, they're trying to turn secular into sectarian. And from where I'm sat - that's not a good thing.