June 6 (Bloomberg) -- The Syrian governmment’s capture of al-Qusair is a “strategic turning point” marking the beginning of the end for the armed opposition, Syria’s premier said, as the army promised mercy for surrendering rebels.
Retaking the city opens the door “for successive victories across all Syrian territory,” Prime Minister Wael al-Halaqi was quoted as saying by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency today. Al-Qusair, which is about 30 kilometers (19 miles) southwest of Homs and controls the road to the Lebanese border, was so severely shelled that not a single building is free of blast damage, according to a BBC reporter at the scene.
“The government won’t allow any group or gang or individual to point a gun at the head of the state or the people, and there will be no weapons on Syrian territory except for the weapons of the Syrian army,” al-Halaqi said.
While the rebels yesterday described their defeat at al-Qusair as only a single battle in the two-year war to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, they have suffered a series of reverses this year, losing ground near the cities of Aleppo and Damascus. Otaibah, to the east of the capital, fell after a 37-day battle, along with the southern town of Sanamein and Aziza in the north. Assad told Al Manar television on May 30 that the balance of power had shifted in favor of his army.
Assad’s forces will now seek to clear the country’s coastal highway, complete the conquest of Homs, near Qusair, and then move on to Aleppo in the north, David Hartwell, London-based Middle East analyst at IHS Jane’s, said in an interview.
“The conflict could drag on for a long time and the Syrian government could face a prolonged insurgency,” he said. Even so, the rebel defeat at al-Qusair “is a major setback for the opposition, it affects their ability to get men and weapons into Syria.”
Increasing violence in the Golan Heights, where a United Nations force monitors the 1970s cease-fire between Syria and Israel, has created an “uncontrollable and immediate risk” for Austrian troops in the UN force and they will be withdrawn, according to an Austrian government statement today.
The UN contingent has 1,074 troops from Austria, Croatia, India and the Philippines at the moment, according to its website. The mission contains a total of about 375 Austrian soldiers are part of the mission, according to the country’s Defense Ministry.
Earlier, Israel said rebels briefly took control of the Quneitra border crossing point on the Golan Heights today before being pushed out by Assad’s troops, Army Radio reported.
The consequences of al-Qusair’s capture echoed through the Middle East today, with Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, the country’s top Sunni Muslim cleric, calling for action against the “loathsome” Shiite Hezbollah group, which joined the Syrian army in its assault.
“We call on all politicians and clerics to take practical steps against this loathsome, sectarian party and those behind it that would deter it from this aggression,” the mufti said in a statement cited by the Saudi Press Agency.
The agency said the mufti was commenting on a statement by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born cleric with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, in which he called on Sunni Muslims to go to Syria in a holy war to aid an oppressed people.
Government warplanes and artillery pounded the outskirts of al-Qusair today, the Coventry, U.K.-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its Facebook page. Thousands of civilians, some of them wounded, remain trapped in the city, according to the Syrian National Council, part of the National Coalition, which is the main political opposition. The council called on the Red Cross to pressure the Syrian government to open safe routes for the victims, the group said in an e-mailed statement.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement that it’s seeking access to al-Qusair from the Syrian government so it can deliver aid. The group has no information on the number of killed and wounded, or on how many residents are still inside the town, it said.
Syria’s army promised to fight until it had restored “security and stability to each and every inch of the homeland.” Even so, it would “look with a merciful eye at those misled gunmen who surrender and drop their weapons,” the General Command said in a statement on SANA yesterday.
The U.S., in a statement issued by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney yesterday, condemned the assault “in the strongest possible terms” while urging “all parties to avoid actions that could exacerbate the already devastating toll” of the Syrian crisis on civilians.
Assad’s victory is just one battle in the war for Syrian liberation and won’t be the last, according to the acting head of the opposition forces, George Sabra. The engagement “will be followed by other battles until the country is liberated” he said in a broadcast shown by Al Jazeera and other television stations yesterday.
Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, says the rebels are “terrorists” and points to Sunni militants, such as the al-Nusra Front, to validate that claim.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on fighters in Syria not to lay down their arms in an audio message, the Beirut-based An-Nahar newspaper reported on its website.
“Oh lions of Islam in Damascus, gather, unite, agree and vow not to lay down your arms and not to leave your trenches” until the establishment of an Islamic state in Damascus, he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Dubai at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com