The Syrian army yesterday triumphantly announced the capture of a strategic border town after a three week grueling battle, telling the nation it has “cleansed” al-Qusayr of rebels and calling it “a message” to Syria’s enemies everywhere.
The capture of the town, which is close to the Lebanese border, solidifies some of the Syrian regime’s recent gains on the ground that have shifted the balance of power in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor in the civil war.
It comes just a day after France and Britain made back-to-back announcements that the nerve gas sarin was used in Syria’s conflict. A UN probe, also released on Tuesday, said it had “reasonable grounds” to suspect small-scale use of toxic chemicals in at least four attacks in March and April in Syria.
However, the statements — which included a confirmed case of the Syrian regime using sarin — leave many questions unanswered, because the probes were mostly carried out from outside Syria from samples collected by doctors and journalists.
On the ground in the past two months, the Syrian army has moved steadily against rebels in key battleground areas, making advances near the border with Lebanon and considerably lowering the threat to Damascus, the seat of al-Assad’s government. Syrian troops, backed by scores of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, launched a wide offensive on al-Qusayr on May 19.
A rare statement by the Syrian Armed Forces was read out yesterday on state TV, saying the military had restored “peace and security” in al-Qusayr, and that the town’s capture was a “clear message to all those participating in the aggression against Syria.”
The army said it cleared al-Qusayr and surrounding villages in the country’s west of “terrorists,” the term the regime uses for rebels fighting to topple the government and that a “large number [of rebels] have been killed.
Others surrendered, while “the rest escaped” following a decisive push into the town late on Tuesday, the statement said.
Images broadcast by media embedded with Syrian troops showed a deserted al-Qusayr, with heavily damaged buildings. Military bulldozers were removing rubble and clearing roads as armored vehicles whizzed by.
The fall of Qusair provides the best evidence to date that the growing participation of militant Hezbollah fighters alongside al-Assad’s troops is a potential game changer in the Syrian two-year-old conflict.
New reports that the French confirmed the use of sarin gas in Syria triggered discussions in Brussels on the sidelines of the meeting of NATO defense ministers, but the alliance is still refusing to make any contingency plans for operations in the embattled country.
Unwilling to get drawn collectively in to a protracted civil war, NATO nations instead are making individual decisions on how best to aid the rebels trying to overthrow al-Assad’s regime.
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with the French and British and Canadian ministers on Tuesday evening and the issue came up during that session, a US official said.
The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting so requested anonymity, said that the ministers agreed to continue to monitor the situation, but did not decide on any specific actions.