Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have today launched an air-strike attack against the rebel-held city of Qusayr, in Homs province, according to reports by opponents fighting against Mr. Assad’s government.
After months of fighting outside Qusayr between state forces and rebels, the Syrian army counter-struck with the aerial attack in an attempt to push back gains made by the rebels in recent months, according to a statement by opposition spokesperson Abu Ali.
Observers of Syria‘s state television have additionally confirmed to international news network CNN that the Syrian army have begun pounding the city with heavy artillery. Government tanks have completely surrounded the city and are moving in from various locations around Qusayr’s outskirts, according to the BBC. Qusayr has been under siege for several months, as various parts of Syria, including districts of the capital Damascus, pass from government to rebel control, and then revert again within weeks.
There have been claims that fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah a Shi’a outfit considered terrorists by the United States and the European Union, are co-operating with the Syrian army to retake the town, which is situated close to the Lebanese border.
Meanwhile, in a sign that the war is becoming more sectarian, hundreds of Lebanese Sunnis have crossed the border to support the beleaguered rebels, who are predominately fellow Sunnis. Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’ath party is mostly drawn from the Alawi (Alawite) minority.
Opposition activists have so far claimed the offensive has resulted in the loss of 16 lives as the air strikes come under way. Reports are coming in of ‘heavy shelling’. Officials from the U.S. Department of State also claim that government forces air-dropped propaganda leaflets over Qusayr, warning of dire consequences if the rebels retained control of the town and persisted with the siege.
In Lebanon’s capital Beirut, the BBC’s Jim Muir stated that should Qusayr remain in rebel hands, it will enable them easy passage to move arms and supplies along the porous border of Lebanon, which has traditionally come under Syria’s sphere of influence. Occupying the border town would give the Syrian army an advantage as they would be successful in cutting off opposition supply lines.
Since the civil war in Syria began in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ last year, it is estimated that around 60-80,000 people have perished in the fighting, with an additional 1.1 million refugees fleeing to squalid refugee camps in Syria’s neighbours Lebanon and Turkey. They are living in destitute conditions and survive with the help of NGO’s and sympathetic locals. However tensions are rising between displaced Syrians and Turks in the NATO power’s southern regions, most notably after a recent bomb blast in the town of Reyhanli, in which Syrians were attacked and their vehicles damaged by revenge mobs in the aftermath.
President Bashar al-Assad has remained openly defiant of both Syrian rebels and the West in their aims to put an end to his nearly thirteen years of autocratic rule of one of the Middle East’s largest nations. Assad has come under heavy criticism by Western powers for a litany of human rights abuses, including wholesale bombing of civilian areas, summary execution of rebels and alleged chemical attacks on villages in the north of Syria which killed one person. The West has so far stuck to a ‘hands-off approach’ as they seek to avoid another Iraq-style conflict and exacerbate sectarian tensions in the region.
Rebel forces have also been accused of human rights abuses and war crimes. This week a rebel leader was videoed cutting out the heart and liver from the corpse of a government soldier and taking a bite out of the heart as he swore revenge on troops loyal to President Assad. The video was received with international disgust and condemnation and the rebels have promised to take action against the commander featured in the mobile video.
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CNN International on Twitter LINK
“Opposition: Syrian army targets rebel-held city” – Yousuf Basil, CNN – Edition International LINK
“Syria army ‘storms’ rebel town Qusair” – BBC News Middle East LINK
“Bashar al-Assad” – Wikipedia LINK