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Assad Regime Recaptures Air Base, Presses Siege of Syria Border Town

Residents of Qusair, Syria salvage copies of the Quran from a mosque bombed by government forces on May 21, 2013. Members of the militant Shi’a Hezbollah in Lebanon have joined regime troops to retake the border town of Qusair from rebel hands.
Battle-hardened Hezbollah guerrillas from Lebanon may be turning the tide in the government’s favor as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad besiege the rebel-held town of Qusair in western Syria.

The Syrian Arab News Agency said government forces had already recaptured the Dabaa air base just north of Qusair and were pressing their attacks on the town, which is 15 kilometers from the Lebanese frontier.

Rebel leaders estimated they have about 1,700 fighters defending Qusair and that between 4,000 and 7,000 Hezbollah guerrillas were leading the attack on the town with support of government air strikes and artillery bombardments.

“Mainly, there is Hezbollah,” said Rifaie Tammas, a Qusair resident who spoke with VOA via Skype as cannon and rocket fire thundered in the background. “These people came from Lebanon and they are more experienced than us, coming here on a holy mission.”

Hardened in battle against Israelis

Hezbollah, backed by Iran, honed its battlefield skills fighting Israeli incursions in southern Lebanon. Tammas said rebels were monitoring pro-government radio transmissions around Qusair and that most of the commands were being delivered in Lebanese-accented Arabic.

The government is anxious to recapture Qusair from the rebels because it has been a center of Sunni Muslim resistance to the Assad regime since 2011 and sits astride a key highway leading into Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and on to Beirut. Under government control, Qusair could be a wedge between southern rebels and other rebel units controlling large areas in northern Syria.

Analysts say taking Qusair, a town of about 40,000, also would put the government in a stronger bargaining position if the United States and Russia are successful in starting peace talks to end the two-year rebellion.

Hezbollah, a long-time ally of the Assad regime, wants to keep it in power to maintain its supply lines to Iran.

Tammas said the Hezbollah fighters are much tougher than the Syrian Army regulars who tried to attack the town before them and are turning the tide of the battle in the government’s favor.

It’s ironic really, when you remember that five or six years ago during the war between Hezbollah and Israel, many of the men and women who we used to feed and house ... now they come to you to kill you and to slaughter.
Rifaie Tammam, activist in Qusair
“When we destroyed regime [regular Army] tanks, the regime soldiers ran away. They were sick and tired of serving,” he said. “But now it’s different. Destroy a tank and Hezbollah still fights.”

But Tammas noted bitterly that Qusair residents once gave Hezbollah fighters refuge and food when they were battling Israeli troops in southern Lebanon, and now have to face them as the enemy.

“It’s ironic really, when you remember that five or six years ago during the war between Hezbollah and Israel, many of the men and women who we used to feed and house, and who used to help and work in their houses and treated them like our brothers and sisters and family, and now they come to you to kill you and to slaughter,” Tammas said. “And they are coming here like they believe that we are wrong, that we are the bad boys.”

“I mean, they are coming with knives to kill children, everyone,” said Tammas, who taught English at a local school before it was closed.

Much of Qusair abandoned

Except for the rebel defenders, Tammas said much of Qusair is abandoned, with families taking refuge in nearby villages, refugee camps and in the open fields of surrounding farmlands. Those who stayed behind, including his own family, are hiding in basement shelters, he said.

“This is a ghost town,” he said, adding that even the daily anti-government rallies had come to an end.

General Salim Idriss, chief of the rebels’ Supreme Military Command, appealed for help from the West over British radio Thursday from another location in Syria.

“We are dying. Please come and help us,” Idriss said, noting that the Hezbollah fighters were leading the attacks on Qusair.

Without directly mentioning Hezbollah, the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday condemned international interference in the Syrian conflict. Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that the country is “spinning out of control” and that immediate action is needed to prevent further bloodshed.

Current estimates are that about 80,000 Syrians have died in the two-year civil war.