Rebels, Syrian army fight in Golan Heights; Austrian peacekeepers withdraw

Syrian rebels fought to seize a crossing on the Israeli border from forces loyal to the government Thursday. The crossing in the Golan Heights is manned by United Nations peacekeepers. The rebels were apparently unsuccessful:

The battle remained fluid through the morning, as Syrian army troops and rebels fought over the old city of Qunaitra in Syria. The city is important because of its strategic location on the road leading to the capital, Damascus.

Israeli military officials said Syrian rebels took the crossing Thursday morning, then were pushed out.

By midday it appeared that Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had retaken the Syrian side of the Qunaitra crossing into Israel.

William Booth and Loveday Morris

In response to the fighting, Austria announced that its contingent in the peacekeeping force would withdraw because of the danger to Austrian soldiers there.

The Syrian opposition suffered a major defeat earlier this week as the army, with the aid of militants from Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon, forced them out of the strategically important town of Qusair:

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 . . .

Control of Qusair gives the Syrian government a crucial link between the capital, Damascus, and the port cities of Tartus and Latakia, the heartland of Assad’s Shiite-affiliated Alawite sect. It also secures a supply conduit from the Lebanese border, which could prove important for Hezbollah as it appears ready to dig in for a long-term fight in Syria.

“Hezbollah may provide the regime with a sharper military edge, but at the cost of turning the struggle into a regional Sunni-Shiite war,” said Peter Harling, a Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group. “How is that supposed to bring it to a close?”

Loveday Morris

The United States has not sent weapons to the Syrian rebels thus far, though President Obama’s appointment of Susan Rice to the position of national security adviser has led to speculation that the administration might pursue a more activist foreign policy in the future. Rice is currently U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Max Ehrenfreund writes for Wonkblog and compiles Wonkbook, a daily policy newsletter. You can subscribe here. Before joining The Washington Post, Ehrenfreund wrote for the Washington Monthly and The Sacramento Bee.

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