Syria’s army and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants recaptured the strategic border town of Qusair Wednesday, cutting off Syrian rebels from an important route for reinforcement and resupply.
Regime allies say Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces will likely try to recapture the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, the country’s largest city and economic hub.
Rebel leaders threatened to retaliate against Hezbollah on its home territory, sparking fears that spillover from Syria’s two year-old conflict is worsening and will feed sectarian violence and political instability in Lebanon and Iraq.
Overnight, rebels and residents in Qusair fled the besieged town, and TV stations showed government forces entering the apparently deserted townWednesday.
“Yes, dear brethren, this is a battle that we lost, but the war is not over yet,” said the Homs Revolution News, which is associated with the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition activist network, according to CNN.
Reuters news agency reported that rebel militias trying to hold the town, which had been in their hands for a year, had lost 500 men — more than half their forces.
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After holding out for seven weeks, the remaining 400 fighters withdrew with an unknown number of civilians through a corridor that government forces had advertised as a safe passage for anyone wanting to leave Qusair.
Control of the city not only blocks an important resupply route for the rebels but also gives the government control of a vital corridor through the central province of Homs, which links Damascus to the coastal heartland of Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect, a branch of Shiite Islam.
The fate of 1,500 injured people who the Red Cross said were trapped in the town was unknown Wednesday, Reuters reported.
Syrian opposition leaders in recent days have warned that pro-regime militias might commit massacres and other war crimes if the military were to retake Qusair.
A senior Lebanese political source close to Hezbollah told Reuters the group would continue to “indirectly” aid the Syrian military, saying Mr. Assad’s forces would move on to retake the rebel stronghold and Syria’s commercial capital Aleppo.
“The battle will continue in all regions, but I believe Aleppo [will be] first,” the source said.
Underlining the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, CNN screened a YouTube video Wednesday showing what the poster said were rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army launching rockets at two Shiite villages near Aleppo.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), like most rebel militias, is overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of the Sunni Muslim tradition.
Last week, the group’s leader, Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, asked the public to “excuse [the] FSA” for any retaliation if Qusair falls.
“We are being subjected to genocide conducted by Hezbollah,” he told Al Arabiya TV.
Wednesday, Gen. Idriss openly threatened to spread the fighting with Shiite Hezbollah to neighboring Lebanon.
“Hezbollah fighters are invading Syrian territory. And when they continue to do that and the Lebanese authorities don’t take any action to stop them coming to Syria, I think we are allowed to fight Hezbollah fighters inside (Lebanese) territory,” he told the BBC.