Qusayr, a modest Syrian town some 10 kilometres east of the Lebanese border, had been under rebel control for more than a year before it fell to Syrian troops backed up by Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas on June 5 after a 17 - day siege, heavy bombardment and street fighting. Before the 27 - month conflict, Qusayr had a population of 30,000, 65 per cent Sunni, 20 per cent Christian - Catholic and Greek Orthodox - and the rest Alawite. The town’s inhabitants made good livings from apricot and cherry orchards, olives, wheat, maize, and other crops harvested from fields irrigated by Al Asi(Orontes) River which runs fast and deep in the countryside between Qusayr and the Lebanese frontier. Qusayris also smuggled goods cheap in Syria - foodstuffs, fuel and cigarettes - into Lebanon as well as luxury goods from Lebanon into Syria. Smuggling was a way of life, so was farming. But once unrest erupted in Syria, Qusayr became a major route for smuggling weapons and foreign fighters into Syria. Consequently the town became a strategic asset for the rebels and a strategic objective for the government which not only sought to stop the smuggling if arms and fighters but also secure the route from Damascus to the coast which could be interdicted by rebels based in Qusayr. Qusayr was also a key objective for Hizbollah because it is surrounded by 25-30 villages inhabited by Lebanese Shias whom the movement pledged to protect. These Lebanese were on the wrong side of the frontier when Lebanon was carved out of Syria by France, the colonial power, after World War I. Syrian rebels seized Qusayr more than a year ago, turning it into an intermittent battleground. Most of the Christians left last summer. Some shifted to the mountain villages between Qusayr and Homs, others fled to Damascus or Aleppo where there was a large Christian community until last July when rebel forces began their campaign to capture the city, Syria’s largest, and also its commercial hub. Sunnis, Alawites and others departed gradually until, on the eve of the Syrian army - Hizbollah operation, the town was inhabited mainly by men trying to prevent their homes from being looted and fighters from various battalions of the Free Syrian Army, the radical Jabhat al - Nusra, and local groups. Three days before the main thrust, the army opened a corridor to allow the remaining civilians to depart. All but a few did, survivors told The Gulf Today. During the final assault, two - thirds of Qusayr was reduced to rubble resembling the towns and villages of southern Lebanon after the 2006 Israeli war on that country. Shortly after that conflict, I toured the area and was shocked at what I found. Some images that stick in my mind from the drive into Qusayr were two mosques, one Sunni, the other Shia, standing tall, apparently undamaged in battered neighbourhoods on either side of the main road at the western edge of the town and St Elias Catholic church, vandalised, and stripped of its furniture, but still standing at the town centre. People’s homes were blasted and burnt, floors collapsed, walls holed by rebel fighters who made they way across town from building to building without going into the streets. The rubble had been stripped of surviving possessions by looters and, in some cases, owners who gathered up whatever they could after the fall of the town. In the third of Qusayr, where homes are damaged but not destroyed, people are slowly returning, most to rescue possessions that have not been pillaged. The government has set up an office in a school where residents can stake compensation and reconstruction claims. In spite of the devastation and the unknown number of deaths over the months, Qusayr is not dead. Roaring bulldozers lumber through the streets, clearing away rubble and carting off barrels used as barricades by the rebels. Electricity, water and communications are being restored to the quarters where people can return. Damascus is determined to show it is in charge by rebuilding Qusayr as soon as the rubble can be swept away and the dust settles. But there are many other neighbourhoods, villages, and towns ahead of Qusayr on the list of destroyed communities awaiting reconstruction. The rebel defeat at Qusayr has, apparently, postponed and, perhaps, torpedoed the US - Russian proposed international peace conference that was supposed to meet this month. UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has urged the sponsors to convene the gathering in July as the conflict is spilling across Syria’s borders, particularly into Lebanon. The rebels seek to improve their position on the ground before attending any conference aimed at deciding the future governance of Syria. They have the backing of their Arab and Western allies who are offering to step up military aid to the fighters in Idlib, Aleppo, and Deraa and in the suburbs of Damascus although all players claim they are not seeking a “military solution” to the conflict. The rebels and their supporters are operating according to the dictum: In war, you do not gain at the negotiating table what you do not win on the battlefield. However, they still hold great swathes of territory in Idlib, Deir Al Zor Aleppo, and Deraa provinces and have shown that they cannot be defeated in these areas in spite of their loss of Qusayr. The deadlock on the ground persists and is unlikely to be broken. Qusayr was not a turning point in the 27 - month conflict but a disaster for the people of the town.
The rebels’ existing territorial assets give them a strong negotiating suit when it comes to trying to end the conflict. If there is no peace settlement, the fighting is likely to transform more Syrian villages, towns, and cities into rubble like Qusayr, kill more and more Syrians, and drive whole communities from their homes and country. Qusayr could be an opportunity to make peace rather than war.
By Michael Jansen