Valdosta Daily Times

National, International News

May 20, 2013

Syrian troops push into strategic rebel-held town

BEIRUT — Syrian troops pushed into a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border on Sunday, fighting house-to-house and bombing from the air as President Bashar Assad tried to strengthen his grip on a strategic strip of land running from the capital to the Mediterranean coast.

With the regime scoring gains on the battlefield, the U.S. and Russia could face an even tougher task persuading Assad and his opponents to attend talks on ending Syria’s 26-month-old conflict. Washington and Moscow hope to start talks with an international conference as early as next month, though no date has been set.

Government forces launched the offensive on the town of Qusair just hours after Assad said in a newspaper interview that he’ll stay in his job until elections — effectively rejecting an opposition demand that any talks on a political transition lead to his ouster.

Even though the regime and the main opposition group have not yet committed to attending the conference, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Sunday that he is hopeful it can take place “very soon,” possibly in early June. In addition to the U.S. and Russia, he said he has spoken with Britain, France, China and other key parties.

Previous diplomatic initiatives have failed, in part because of divisions within the international community and because the regime and the armed opposition believed they could achieve more on the battlefield than in talks. Russia and the U.S. have backed opposite sides in Syria.

Still, neither regime forces nor rebel fighters have been able to create significant momentum since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 and last year escalated into a full-fledged civil war.

The rebels control large rural areas in the north and east of the country, while Assad has successfully defended his hold on the capital, Damascus, the coastal area and parts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

Before Sunday’s offensive, Qusair had been ringed by regime troops and fighters from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, an Assad ally, for several weeks.

Qusair lies along a land corridor between Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Many rebel fighters are Sunni Muslims and Qusair, overwhelmingly Sunni, had served as a conduit for shipments of weapons and supplies smuggled from Lebanon to the rebels.

Hadi Abdullah, a Qusair activist reached by Skype, said regime troops and Hezbollah fighters began shelling the town late Saturday, followed by airstrikes early Sunday that sent residents taking cover in basements. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said warplanes resumed bombing raids later Sunday.

By Sunday afternoon, regime forces had advanced into the town, engaging in house-to-house battles with rebel fighters, Abdullah said.

Syrian state media said Assad’s troops took control of the main square, the area around the municipal building, a sports stadium and a local church. Syrian state TV said troops arrested rebel fighters who tried to flee Qusair dressed as civilians.

A government official said the regime left an escape road open to civilians, a claim denied by Abdullah, who said thousands of noncombatants were trapped in Qusair. “We tried to get civilians out four times. They are not allowing us,” he said of regime forces.

The Observatory said 52 people were killed in Qusair, including 48 fighters, three women and a male civilian.

Abdullah said the air raids destroyed at least 17 houses. A field hospital was damaged last week, leaving the town with only one medical center which was unable to handle the influx of some 400 wounded Sunday, he said.

The main political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said some 40,000 civilians are currently in Qusair and expressed concern for their safety. It urged the international community to step in to protect the lives of the civilians and called on the U.N. Security Council to denounce Hezbollah’s involvement in the attack.

Six mortar rounds, apparently fired from Qusair, struck in nearby Lebanon, causing damage to a carpentry shop where a fire broke out, Lebanese security officials said. There were no reports of casualties.

In the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, clashes erupted between residents of a predominantly Alawite area and a majority Sunni neighborhood, Lebanon’s National News Agency reported. It said at least five people were wounded in the fighting.

Events in Syria often raise tension among rival sects in neighboring Lebanon, particularly in Tripoli.

The Qusair offensive was just the latest indicator that the joint U.S.-Russian diplomatic initiative faces challenges.

Russia, despite its stated commitment to Syria peace talks, has reportedly delivered an advanced version of its Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria, prompting U.S. complaints last week about an “ill-timed” step. Russia is a key political ally and arms supplier of the Assad regime, along with Iran.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, wants to avoid getting drawn into the Syria quagmire, despite pressure to find a way to end the bloodletting that has left more than 70,000 dead. U.S. concerns have been heightened by the growing dominance of Islamic militants among the fighters, including those linked to the al-Qaida terror network.

“For the U.S., (the conference) is mostly about postponing the tough decision-making Obama has been loath to get himself involved in, because he fears Syria will suck him in,” said Peter Harling, a Syria expert at the International Crisis Group think tank.

In a further complication, Israel could get drawn in.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Sunday that he is ready to act if Syria attempts to ship advanced Iranian weapons to Hezbollah, saying that “we are prepared for every scenario.” Earlier this month, Israel struck twice near Damascus, to intercept purported shipments to Hezbollah.

1
Text Only
National, International News
  • Mideast Iraq_Rich copy.jpg Iraq elects new president amid attacks

    Iraqi lawmakers elected a veteran Kurdish politician on Thursday to replace long-serving Jalal Talabani as the country’s new president in the latest step toward forming a new government. But a series of attacks killed dozens of people and Islamic militants destroyed a Muslim shrine traditionally said to be the burial place of the Prophet Jonah, underscoring the overwhelming challenges facing the divided nation.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Hong Kong Shutdown_Rich copy.jpg Hong Kong firms on edge as blockade looms

    As activists vow to shut down Hong Kong’s financial district in protest at China’s attempt to hobble democratic elections in the city, businessman Bernard Chan is preparing for the worst.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Mideast Israel Palest_Rich copy.jpg UN school in Gaza caught in cross-fire; 15 killed

    A U.N. school in Gaza crowded with hundreds of Palestinians seeking refuge from fierce fighting came under fire Thursday, killing at least 15 civilians and leaving a sad tableau of blood-spattered pillows, blankets and children’s clothing scattered in the courtyard.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • AP00072403324 copy.jpg Today in History for Friday, July 25, 2014

    Today is Friday, July 25, the 206th day of 2014. There are 159 days left in the year.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Rebels release train with bodies from downed jet

    Bowing to international pressure, pro-Moscow separatists released a train packed with bodies and handed over the black boxes from the downed Malaysia Airlines plane, four days after it plunged into rebel-held eastern Ukraine.

    July 22, 2014

  • Gaza death toll rises as truce effort intensifies

    A high-level attempt by the U.N. chief and the U.S. secretary of state to end deadly Israel-Hamas fighting was off to a rough start Monday: Gaza’s Hamas rulers signaled they won’t agree to an unconditional cease-fire, Israel’s prime minister said he’ll do whatever is necessary to keep Israelis safe from Hamas attacks and the overall Palestinian death toll surpassed 560.

    July 22, 2014

  • AP110722023493 copy.jpg Today in History for Tuesday, July 22, 2014

    Today is Tuesday, July 22, the 203rd day of 2014. There are 162 days left in the year.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Western Wildfires_Rich copy.jpg Helpful weather coming to Washington wildfires

    Cooler temperatures and lighter winds are forecast to descend on wildfire-stricken Washington state, helping firefighters battle flames that have been growing unfettered for a week and have covered hundreds of square miles.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Today in History for Monday, July 21, 2014

    Today is Monday, July 21, the 202nd day of 2014. There are 163 days left in the year.

    July 21, 2014

  • James Garner Obit_Rich(1) copy.jpg Film, TV legend James Garner, reluctant hero, dies

    Few actors could register disbelief, exasperation or annoyance with more comic subtlety.
    James Garner had a way of widening his eyes while the corner of his mouth sagged ever so slightly. Maybe he would swallow once to further make his point.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

Top News
Poll

School starts again in about two weeks. What do you think?

It's still summer. School starts too soon.
Seems like the right time to return.
Abolish summer recess. Make school year-round.
     View Results