BEIRUT — Syrian forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies seized control of the border town of Qusair today, dealing a strategic defeat to rebel fighters battling for two years to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Outgunned rebels said they had retreated from Qusair, which lies on a vital cross-border supply route with Lebanon, after two weeks of fierce battles that marked the Shi’ite Hezbollah group’s deepest involvement yet in Syria’s civil war.
A Hezbollah fighter told Reuters the town had fallen in a rapid overnight offensive, allowing tanks and troops to roll into the rubble-strewn streets after dawn, with many buildings in the city center reduced to mounds of twisted concrete.
“We will not hesitate to crush with an iron fist those who attack us. … Their fate is surrender or death,” the Syrian armed forces command said in statement. “We will continue our string of victories until we regain every inch of Syrian land.”
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television showed a man climbing the bullet-pocked clock-tower in the town’s wrecked and mangled central square to plant a Syrian flag.
Bolstered by his Iranian and Russian backers, Assad’s forces have launched a series of counter-offensives in recent weeks against mainly Sunni Muslim rebels battling to overthrow him and end his minority Alawite family’s four-decade grip on power.
A member of a pro-Assad Syrian militia said the military focus may now move to the northern province of Aleppo, which has been largely in rebel hands for the last year.
Assad’s upturn in fortunes could further diminish hopes of concessions at a peace conference the United States and Russia are seeking to convene, with Damascus increasingly confident of success against a ragtag opposition that is short of weapons.
Qusair had been in rebel hands for more than a year, denying Assad an important corridor through the central province of Homs which links Damascus to the coastal heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
“Whoever controls Qusair controls the center of the country, and whoever controls the center of the country controls all of Syria,” said Syrian Brigadier-General Yahya Suleiman, speaking to Beirut-based Mayadeen television. (Reuters)