Qusair in their hands, now Hezbollah is fighting for Aleppo
Having helped Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces take back one strategic stronghold, Lebanese organization is now joining the fray for key northern city.
TURKEY-SYRIA BORDER – The Syrian government announced Wednesday morning that its forces had succeeded in retaking the town of Qusair after a three-week siege. Despite Syrian state television saying that Qusair had been taken by the "government's heroic forces," the victory was achieved mainly due to the assistance of hundreds of Hezbollah fighters, fighting along units of the Syrian army loyal to President Bashar Assad. Hezbollah were not just spearheading the battle of Qusair; in recent days, its forces have also been involved in the ongoing fighting for the city of Aleppo.
Qusair is a strategic stronghold for the Assad regime, since it controls the main road leading from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast, where Syria's only seaports are located and where a large Alawite population, loyal to Assad, is concentrated. According to different reports, Assad has prepared a plan to relocate his forces and regime to the coastal area should he lose control of Damascus. The recapture of Qusair, which is also close to the Shia-dominated region in northern Lebanon, provides the regime with a northwestern corridor from Damascus.
Qusayr, with 30,000 residents, was one of the first towns for fall to the rebels, in the early stages of the civil war two years ago, and has been under siege for much of the period since- although the rebels managed to bring supplies into the town.
The last attack, with massive assistance from Hezbollah, began on May 19. For the last three weeks, the rebels tried to repel the attackers, until this week their commanders and the town's civilian authorities reported that food, ammunition and medical supplies had almost totally run out. By the end of the battle, the small medical staff that remained in the city was treating around 1,300 casualties.
General Salim Idriss, the commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) told the BBC on Tuesday that Hezbollah fighters had invaded Syria, while Lebanon had done nothing to block it, and therefore his men would also fight on Lebanese soil.
The general denied the FSA was losing the civil war, despite the last setbacks, which included the defeat in Qusair. Hundreds of rebel fighters fled the city northwards and will now reinforce other regions, including the suburbs of Damascus and the northern cities of Idlib, Hama, Homs and Aleppo, where the rebels still hold large areas.
According to reports from Syria, around 3,000 rebels fought in Qusair in recent days, most of them FSA men, along with a reinforcement of fighters from the Al-Qaida oriented Jabhat al-Nusra.
Now it has emerged that Hezbollah is already fighting in north Syria as well in the battle for the city of Aleppo. Syrian citizens and rebel fighters who crossed the border to Turkey in recent days say that they have seen Hezbollah members fighting in villages and suburbs around Aleppo.
Aleppo too is a strategic target- the second-largest city in Syria and a major commercial center, it controls the roads leading north from Syria to Turkey, which is the main source of arms shipments to the rebels.
The Free Syrian Army began fighting for control of Aleppo 10 months ago, but due to a lack of weapons and poor coordination between its various forces, has failed to capture the city, and large parts of it remain in the hands of troops loyal to Assad.
But the rebels still control about half of Aleppo and its surroundings, pinning large forces of the Syrian Army, allowing refugees to escape to Turkey and volunteers to enter the country and join the rebels.
Ahmed Ramadan, a fighter in the Free Syrian Army (and a defector from the Syrian Army) left Syria on Tuesday to visit his family in a refugee camp. He says that over the past few days he saw Hezbolla fighters in the suburbs of Aleppo. He and his friends fled – "they had heavy weapons, machine guns and missiles, we only had our Kalashnikovs and little ammunition."
Aghel Hussein, who fled with his family from a village north of the city, said that Hezbollah men had come to their village and killed civilians. "They did not hide their identity," he said. "They wear around their heads bands saying that they are "soldiers of Hussein, son of Ali (founder of the Shia stream in Islam)."
Hussein Hussein, a resident of Aleppo who also fled this week said that "it is already an international war and you barely see Syrians fighting anymore. The rebels now come from all the world, Afghan, Pakistanis, Chechens, Saudis, even volunteers from Europe and the U.S. On Assad's side we almost never see, any longer, soldiers who are Syrian, rather mainly Hezbollah men and Iranian officers." He also claimed to have seen Hezbollah members operating this week in Aleppo.
Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, admitted in a speech two weeks ago for the first time that his men are operating in Syria, though there have been reports of their presence almost from the start of the civil war. A report published this week by the Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center writes that about a hundred Hezbollah fighters have so far been killed in Syria. According to the report, Hezbollah is also busy training armed Shia militias to continue fighting in Syria in case the Assad regime falls.
According to other sources in Lebanon, the number of Hezbollah members killed in Syria is as high as two hundred.
Hezbollah is no longer making any effort to hide its members' presence in Syria and is trying to present it as a defense of Lebanon. On Tuesday, as the battle of Qusair ended, Hezbollah fighters passed their positions to Syrian army soldiers and left the town marching with ribbons in the colors of Lebanon's flag tied to their uniforms. Also on Tuesday, the Iranian regime, which backs Hezbollah and the Assad regime, congratulated "the Syrian people" for its victory in Qusair.
Despite the widespread damage to buildings in Qusair, about half the town's population, some15 thousand people - mainly Sunnis, but also some Christians who were suspected by the rebels of supporting the Assad regime - remained in the town. The regime, in what seems to be an attempt to improve its image, allowed foreign journalists into the town after victory was announced.