MidEast

Strategically Critical Rebel Stronghold Falls to Hezbollah

Hezbollah forces, assisted by Syrian troops, have taken control of most of the strategic border town of Qusayr, marking a massive setback for rebel forces seeking the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Both sides have acknowledged the reality in the city, which until recently had been a key opposition stronghold:

“We have suffered heavy losses,” said Yazed al Hasan, a spokesman for the rebel Farouq Battalions, which have occupied Qusayr since last year. He also acknowledged that government forces had recaptured the military airport north of the city.

The Hezbollah fighter, who asked to be referred to only as Ayoub, a pseudonym, because Hezbollah’s leadership hadn’t authorized him to speak to reporters, said his group’s strategists had divided Qusayr “on a grid into 16 squares.” “We have cleared 13 of them,” he said. Ayoub was in Beirut on leave from the fighting and had last been in Syria four days ago, but he said he’d stayed in touch with developments and expected to return to Syria on Sunday.

American officials blasted the Iran-backed terror group for its activities inside Syria – opposition forces describe so many Hezbollah troops as to constitute a literal invasion – and called on Hezbollah to withdraw from the country:

Hezbollah’s participation in the battle for Qusair, on the Syrian-Lebanese border, risks dragging Lebanon into a conflict that has increasingly become overshadowed by Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned the declaration last weekend by Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah that his combatants were in Syria and would stay in the war “to the end of the road.”

“This is an unacceptable and extremely dangerous escalation. We demand that Hezbollah withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately,” Psaki said at a daily news briefing.

Asked what the United States would do if Hezbollah did not withdraw, Psaki said Washington was pursuing diplomatic solutions but was also “continuing to increase and escalate our aid and support for the [Syrian] opposition.”

Hezbollah’s apparent success in assisting the Assad regime has not been costless. The group has lost soldiers in Syria and prestige in Lebanon. A video embedded below documents Sunni Lebanese refusing to let Hezbollah bury a fighter in their cemetery in Sidon. The body was ultimately interred in the southern city’s Shi’ite cemetery in a ceremony that included Nazi salutes. The outrage is a increasingly common sight among Islamist and radical Arab nationalist groups.

[Photo: syria_Unrest / YouTube]