To the government, Qusair was essential to its push to regain control of central Syria. The town’s fall adds impetus to a swing in Assad’s favor generated by an inflow of military technology from Iran and Russia and by support from Hezbollah, whose involvement has deepened fears that the conflict could explode into a regional sectarian war.
The boost in confidence for Assad also diminishes hopes for a peace conference that its backers, the United States and Russia, had planned to hold in Geneva this month. With the opposition continuing to refuse participation until Hezbollah and Iran end their “invasion” of Syria, the talks were postponed Wednesday until at least next month.
Outnumbered, outgunned and surrounded, the rebel forces in Qusair had resisted more tenaciously than many had expected, inflicting heavy losses on the Hezbollah militants, known for their prowess in street fighting. But even with reinforcements from their northern stronghold in Aleppo, the rebels could not halt their opponents’ creeping gains.
“It’s a battle that we lost,” the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition activist network, said in a statement, adding that the war is not yet over. The rebel Free Syrian Army put up a strong fight in the face of “missile launchers, mortar shells, airstrikes . . . a strangling siege and a lack of all of the basic needs of life,” it added.
The United Nations had earlier raised concerns about more than 1,000 civilians it said were trapped inside Qusair under constant bombardment, with no access to medical care and basic supplies.
Streets in Qusair, once an opposition bastion and home to 30,000 people, now lie deserted, with buildings reduced to rubble, activists say.
Pro-Assad forces launched a surprise attack Tuesday night, opening up an escape route to the nearby village of Dabaa and to Aarsal, across the Lebanese border, to encourage rebels to leave, a security official with ties to Syrian forces told the Reuters news agency. The evacuation followed reports in the Lebanese news media that Druze leader Walid Jumblatt had been mediating between the Syrian rebels and the Assad government and Hezbollah to ensure a safe exit for civilians.
Wafic Khalaf, a member of the municipal council in Aarsal, said a Syrian helicopter fired four rockets into Lebanon on Wednesday, targeting those fleeing Qusair. More than 100 people were reported to have crossed the border by the end of the day, with a bigger influx expected Thursday. No casualties were reported, but Lebanese President Michel Suleiman urged Syria to refrain from putting Lebanese citizens at risk.