AMMAN/BEIRUT - About 30 Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and 20
Syrian soldiers and militiamen loyal to President Bashar Assad have been
killed in the fiercest fighting this year in the rebel stronghold of Qusair,
Syrian activists said on Monday.
Sunday's reported death toll was the
highest for Hezbollah in a single day's conflict in Syria, highlighting the
increasing intervention by the guerrilla group originally set up by Iran in the
1980s to fight Israeli occupation troops in south Lebanon.
the Hezbollah losses also reflect the extent to which Syria is becoming a proxy
conflict between Shi'ite Iran and Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and
Qatar, which back Assad's mostly Sunni enemies.
Western countries and
Russia, an ally of Damascus, back opposing sides in this regional free-for-all
which is also sucking in Israel. Three times this year Israeli planes have
bombed presumed Iranian weapons destined for Hezbollah.
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said his country was "preparing for every scenario"
in Syria and held out the prospect of more Israeli strikes on Syria to stop
Hezbollah and other opponents of Israel obtaining advanced
Israel has not confirmed or denied reports by Western and
Israeli intelligence sources that its raids targeted Iranian missiles stored
near Damascus that it believed were awaiting delivery to Hezbollah, which fought
a war with Israel in 2006.
Fog of war
Syrian opposition sources and state
media gave widely differing accounts of Sunday's ferocious clashes in Qusair,
long used by rebels as a supply route from the nearby Lebanese border to the
provincial capital Homs.
Hezbollah has not commented but in Lebanon's
Bekaa Valley on Monday several funeral processions could be seen. Pictures of
dead fighters were plastered on to cars and mourners waved yellow Hezbollah
Several ambulances were seen on the main Bekaa Valley highway and
residents said hospitals had appealed for blood to treat the wounded brought
back to Lebanon.
The air and tank assault on the strategic town of 30,000
people appeared to be part of a campaign by Assad's forces to consolidate their
grip on Damascus and secure links between the capital and government strongholds
in the Alawite coastal heartland via the contested central city of
The government campaign has coincided with efforts by the United
States and Russia, despite their differences on Syria, to organise peace talks
to end a conflict now in its third year in which more than 80,000 people have
A total of 100 combatants from both sides were killed in
Sunday's offensive, according to opposition sources, including the British-based
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Troops have already retaken several
villages around Qusair and have attacked increasingly isolated rebel units in
"If Qusair falls, God forbid, the opposition in Homs city will be
in grave danger," said an activist who called himself Abu Jaafar
State news agency SANA said the army had "restored security
and stability to most Qusair neighbourhoods" and was "chasing the remnants of
the terrorists in the northern district".
Syrian television also showed
footage of what it said was an Israeli military Jeep which it said the rebels
had been using and which showed the extent of their foreign backing. An Israeli
military spokeswoman said the vehicle was decommissioned a decade ago and
dismissed the footage as "poor propaganda".
Opposition activists said
rebels in Qusair, about 10 km (six miles) from the Lebanese border, had pushed
back most of the attacking forces to their original positions in the east of the
town and to the south on Sunday, destroying at least four Syrian army tanks and
five light Hezbollah vehicles.
The Western-backed leadership of the Free
Syrian Army, the loose umbrella group trying to oversee hundreds of disparate
rebel brigades, said the Qusair fighters had thwarted Hezbollah with military
operations it dubbed "Walls of Death".
Syrian government restrictions on
access for independent media make it hard to verify such videos and
The fighting raged as Western
nations are seeking to step up pressure on Assad - Britain and France want the
European Union to allow arms deliveries to rebels - while preparing for the
peace talks brokered by Russia and the United States next month.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said "no option is off the table" over the
possible arming of rebels if the Syrian government does not negotiate seriously
at the proposed talks.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose
country has shielded Syria from UN Security Council action, said Syrian
opposition representatives must take part without precondition, apparently
referring to their demands for Assad's exit before they come to the
Assad has scorned the idea that the conference expected to convene
in Geneva could end a war that is fuelling instability and deepening
Sunni-Shi'ite rifts across the Middle East.
"They think a political
conference will halt terrorists in the country. That is unrealistic," he told
the Argentine newspaper Clarin, in a reference to Syria's mainly Sunni
Assad ruled out "dialogue with terrorists", but it was not clear
from his remarks whether he would agree to send delegates to a conference that
may in any case falter before it starts due to disagreements between its two
main sponsors and their allies.
The fractured Syrian opposition is to
discuss the proposed peace conference at a meeting due to start in Istanbul on
Thursday, during which it will also appoint a new leadership.
troops and militias loyal to Assad, who inherited power in Syria from his father
in 2000, have put rebels under pressure in several of their strongholds in
Assad, from Syria's minority Alawite sect, has been
battling an uprising which began with peaceful protests in March 2011. His
violent response eventually prompted rebels to take up arms.
has supported Assad throughout the crisis but for months denied reports it was
fighting alongside Assad's troops.
The Syrian Observatory for Human
Rights put the Hezbollah casualties on Sunday at 28 dead and more than 70
wounded, while 48 rebel fighters and four civilians were also
Tareq Murei, an activist in Qusair, said six more people were
killed on Monday as Syrian army artillery and Hezbollah rocket launchers
bombarded rebel-held parts of the town.
Video footage purportedly showed
a Syrian tank on fire at a street corner in the town. In another video a
warplane was shown flying over the town amid the sound of
Lebanese security sources said at least 12 Hezbollah fighters
were killed in Qusair on Sunday. Seven were to be buried in the Lebanese town of
Baalbek and nearby villages on Monday, they said.