A Syrian government offensive near the Lebanese border is being described as the fiercest fighting in months by villagers fleeing the violence, with troops loyal to President Bashar Assad seizing control of villages that had been rebel strongholds.
The fighting near the city of Qusayr, which the rebels have controlled since last summer, has solidified the Orontes River as the dividing line between the country’s warring sects, with pro-Assad Alawites holding the area on the western bank of the river and anti-Assad Sunni Muslims on the river’s eastern bank.
“They are kicking out all the Sunnis from the west side of the river,” said one woman, who said she’d fled to the village of Aarsal, Lebanon, from a Syrian village named Burhania. She declined to give her name. “The lands west of the Orontes have been closed by the army.”
Many of Syria’s Alawite minority, a sect related to Shiite Islam to which Assad belongs, hail from the coastal area west of the Orontes that comprises the provinces of Latakia and Tartus, which together make up the largest part of the country still undisputedly under government control. Syrians and outside observers long have surmised that Assad might create an enclave in these two provinces, where he can count on the support of fellow Alawites and Shiites who fear radical Sunni Islamists among the rebels who consider their beliefs heretical.
The area around Qusayr has long been a battle zone, with both the government and the rebels considering it strategic to their goals. But residents who’ve arrived in Aarsal in recent days said they’d been able to remain in their homes throughout the fighting until a week ago, when government shelling intensified and rebels withdrew.
All those interviewed in Aarsal said the fighting was the fiercest they’d seen. Several reported that government shelling had leveled Nabi Mendo, a town northwest of Qusayr.
Residents said the participation in the offensive of fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that’s increasingly fought on the side of the Syrian government, was crucial to the government’s recapture of the villages.
Rebels use the area to move people and supplies between Syria and supportive communities in Lebanon, and last year it served as an approach to gain a foothold in Homs, the country’s third largest city, which continues to see combat despite a nearly yearlong siege by the government against rebel-held neighborhoods in its center.
Qusayr sits astride a highway that connects Damascus to Latakia and Tartus, the major coastal cities in the provinces of the same name.
Until the past several days, the villages near Qusayr still had mixed populations, with Alawites and Sunnis living in relative proximity to each other, unlike the provinces of Hama and Idlib to the north, where farmland along the river became a no-man’s land last year and farmers from each side complained of being targeted by the other side. Neighbors who’d done business together for years became bitter enemies as each side accused the other of massacring civilians.
Now, however, the sectarian fissure, as well as the river, extends southwest of Qusayr and into northern Lebanon, where Shiite, Sunni and Alawite communities with close historical ties to those on the Syrian side of the border appear at increasing risk of being drawn into the conflict across a border that had remained largely unmarked in many places until Syria ended its decades-long occupation of Lebanon in 2005.
Last week, rebels in Qusayr, retaliating for what they said was shelling from Lebanon, fired rockets into Lebanon on half a dozen occasions. Some of those rockets fell in Hermel, a Hezbollah stronghold northeast of Aarsal, where residents and Hezbollah representatives said the rockets had damaged buildings but caused no casualties. In the village of Qasr, northeast of Hermel, the rockets killed two people.
Essam Bleibel, the co-director of the Hermel municipality, denounced the rocket attacks. “Even if they are fighting the military wing of Hezbollah, they don’t have the right to attack civilians,” he said.
Bleibel, who called the Hezbollah press office in Beirut to ask permission before speaking with an American reporter, said he expected tensions only to increase.
“The people are getting angrier and angrier. The situation can’t stay like this,” he said. “We are afraid the situation will develop into people taking revenge.”
Bleibel said he was confident that the Syrian military and militias on the other side of the border were winning the battle, and he pointed to the fact that it had been almost a week since the last rocket had fallen in Hermel.
The push around Qusayr coincides with similar government offensives in the capital, Damascus, and the southern province of Daraa, where the participation of pro-government militias in the fighting has bolstered the Syrian military.
The tactic apparently has been effective. Opposition supporters in the eastern Damascus suburb of Douma, a staging ground for rebels seeking to push deeper into the capital, which has been rebel-run for months, said the government effectively had cut rebel supply lines and isolated the area. Government forces also overran rebel-held suburbs last week in western Damascus in an effort to apply pressure on Darayya, a rebel stronghold in southern Damascus that government forces overran last August but that rebels have since reinfiltrated.