Syrian rebels still battling to hold on to Qusayr; Red Crescent denied entry

McClatchy Foreign StaffJune 4, 2013 

— The Syrian government has told the Syrian Arab Red Crescent that it cannot yet enter the city of Qusayr, a sign that the 3-week-old government offensive to retake the city from rebels has yet to achieve its objectives.

“We were told Monday by the Syrian government that we would not be allowed access to Qusayr until the fighting has ended,” said Rima Kamal, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus, the Syrian capital. The ICRC works closely with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which distributes aid across the country.

“Right now we are trying to ease the displaced people from Qusayr by providing food and other aid,” Kamal said.

The fighting has been marked by claims and counterclaims of control of Qusayr, a strategically located city near Syria’s border with Lebanon. Held by the rebels outright for nearly a year, Qusayr is an important transit point for supplies and fighters coming from Lebanon, as well as for refugees fleeing the violence.

The fighting in the city has been led by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, a close ally of the Syrian government. Last week, Hezbollah fighters returning from Qusayr said that the city had been largely cleared of rebels and that they were laying tight siege to the few areas where rebels remained.

But on Tuesday, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the fighting, reported government planes were again striking rebel positions, suggesting not only that rebels still occupied part of the city, but that Hezbollah’s forces had pulled back somewhat to permit airstrikes.

Hezbollah fighters have praised some of the rebels’ fighting skills and said that they are well entrenched in Qusayr, with fortifications that include tunnels.

Some rebel reinforcements have reached Qusayr in recent days, particularly from Liwa Tawhid, a rebel group largely based in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. But the trip took more than a week, a sign that rebels no longer can move easily between areas they control. At least one group of fighters did not reach Qusayr after it was ambushed on the road by the Syrian army, according to rebel reports.

An anti-government activist in the city of Yabrud, south of Qusayr, said that some fighters also had traveled from Yabrud to Qusayr to the support the rebels. But the rebel reinforcements are small in number and no better equipped than the fighters they are going to aid.

“The groups who are coming have very little ammunition,” said Yazed al Hasan, a spokesman for the Farouq Brigades, one of the main rebel groups fighting in Qusayr.

It is unclear how many civilians remain in Qusayr. The Syrian Opposition Coalition, an umbrella group for the opposition against the government, repeatedly has said that basic supplies are running low in the city, that medical care is almost nonexistent and that thousands of civilians are trapped by the fighting. But most of Qusayr’s pre-war population of 35,000 fled when fighting broke out there last year.

“Ninety percent of the civilians have left,” said the opposition activist from Yabrud who was reached by phone and asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Kamal, the ICRC spokeswoman, pointed out that while much media attention in recent weeks has been focused on Qusayr, there have been reports of renewed fighting in Aleppo and Deir el-Zour, a city in eastern Syria that rebels have largely taken over but from which they have been unable to fully evict government forces.

“You have other areas that are in the same situation” as Qusayr, Kamal said. “The situation across the country continues to deteriorate.”

Inside Syria, the ICRC has identified nearly 7 million people in need of basic aid, Kamal said. Many of those have been forced from their homes. That number is in addition to the more than 1.5 million Syrians the United Nations says have fled the country. Hundreds of thousands live in camps in Jordan, Turkey and Iraq; even more have become urban refugees, many of whom are struggling to survive.

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization warned of the inevitability of outbreaks of disease inside Syria as infrastructure is further damaged, and also reported disease outbreaks in refugee camps outside the country.

Syria’s civil war has left more than 96,000 people dead in two years, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. More than 43 percent of those – 41,648 – were pro-Assad fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory’s most recent accounting. Civilians killed in the conflict to date number 35,479 by that count, or about 37 percent of the total. Rebel casualties number 16,499, or 17.3 percent of the dead.

Email: denders@mcclatchydc.com, Twitter: @davidjenders

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