The Battle for Qusayr: Decisive Victory or War of Attrition?

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A Syrian soldier sits inside a tank as troops take control of the village of Western Dumayna, some seven kilometers north of the rebel-held city of Qusayr, on 13 May 2013. (Photo: AFP -Joseph Eid)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The battle for Qusayr has not been settled. There are conflicting estimates about the outcome, with loyalists speaking of “hours separating us from victory,” and opposition fighters promising a “protracted war of attrition.”

Syrian opposition fighters say they have managed to absorb the first strike. They maintain that their collapsing morale has turned into a shared sense of optimism, which helped them regroup and prepare to “confront Hezbollah, which will suffer grave losses at our hands.”

Many armed opposition factions operate in Qusayr, but they don’t seem to be homogenous. Like most unorganized militias, they are not adept at cooperating with one another, and in the absence of a unified leadership, their operations are not coordinated.

These militias share control of Qusayr in accordance with their respective financial and military capabilities. The most organized of the factions include the Farouq Brigades, Omar al-Farouq Brigades, al-Wadi Brigades, and the Salafi-leaning Ahfad al-Sahaba Battalion.

The latter is comprised of a small number of extremists who are ideologically aligned with al-Qaeda, as well as Arab and foreign fighters known as al-Muhajirun, which literally means immigrants, but is also a reference to the early converts to Islam who left Mecca with the Prophet Mohammad. These include an Australian national who, holding a degree in chemistry, came to Qusayr via Lebanon to help “develop explosive devices used by the mujahideen.”

Keeping this blueprint of Qusayr opposition factions in mind, the Syrian army resolved to settle matters militarily in the town after negotiations with the opposition failed.

Leaflets dropped in Qusayr calling on civilians to evacuate the area, but most did not comply. Later on, many began to flee, while others refused to leave voluntarily. But the opposition fighters soon realized that the civilians could serve their cause, and forced some who sought to leave belatedly to stay in the town.

The Syrian army deployed a few hundred elite troops to carry out surgical attacks in Qusayr, according to military sources. Consequently, these sources are certain “the losses will be massive in the battle, especially since the Syrian army is facing groups that are deeply entrenched in civilian neighborhoods.”

In light of this, the same sources were in agreement that what happened in the past two days was a “military achievement.”

Fighting Continues Among Conflicting Reports

Sources in the armed opposition said that fighting has continued in northwestern Qusayr since Sunday, and denied that the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters made any progress, with the exception of sustained aerial bombardment against rebel positions.

The same opposition sources also claimed that groups of fighters had retreated into al-Basateen in the northeast, “to safeguard civilians trapped in their homes and avoid raids by Syrian warplanes, which have been using vacuum bombs.”

As the fighting raged in Qusayr, both sides claimed to have made achievements on the ground. Syrian army sources have touted making “qualitative progress” in several sectors of the strategic town, to which opposition coordination committees have responded by posting videos allegedly showing fighters repelling regime attacks.

Opposition sources denied all reports of the regime providing “safe corridors” for civilians and militants alike to withdraw.

Al-Akhbar learned that the opposition fighters have booby-trapped cars and homes. The fighters also dug tunnels throughout Qusayr to facilitate their movements, but according to informed sources, the Syrian army was able to target most of the tunnels and destroy them.

In contrast to the opposition’s claims, military sources dismissed claims about the rebels having absorbed the first strike. The Syrian army carried out “a sweeping attack,” they said, and “the militants have yet to awaken from their shock.”

Well-informed Syrian sources said that the Syrian army was hesitant about evacuating several positions in the east, which were going to be left for the militants to withdraw, but that the army decided against that in the end fearing reinforcements for the opposition.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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