A damaged church in Qusair, Syria. In a major setback to rebels, the strategic… (European Pressphoto Agency )
BEIRUT — The retaking of the strategic Syrian town of Qusair by government forces Wednesday dealt a pivotal setback to rebels who in recent weeks have lost a string of battles to President Bashar Assad and his increasingly aggressive Hezbollah allies from neighboring Lebanon.
The rebels' loss of Qusair, which had been in opposition hands for more than a year, gives Assad fresh swagger and is likely to further propel a two-year war that has killed more than 80,000 people. Qusair improves the Assad government's access to the Mediterranean Sea and control over vital supply routes.
Disparate opposition forces now face questions of how to regain momentum against a Syrian government aided by weapons and technology from Russia and Iran and fighters from Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militant group that views Assad's survival as tantamount to protecting its own power in Lebanon. The rebels, armed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries, still lack the firepower and leadership to decisively change the course of the war.
Hopes for an international peace conference appear elusive. The United States and Syrian ally Russia stalled in deliberations in Geneva on Wednesday to find parameters to bring all sides, including fractious Syrian opposition groups, to the negotiating table. That failure — another effort is expected this month — refocuses attention on the battlefield, where rebel gains from just months ago have evaporated.
"I think it could be the beginning of the end even though the war is obviously not over," said Kamel Wazne, director of the Center of American Strategic Studies in Beirut. "It's a strategic victory. But the Syrian government needs a political solution to match this achievement."
That, at least for the moment, appears unlikely amid the government's euphoria over seizing Qusair, a battered outpost that sits only miles from the Lebanese border. As government troops swept into the nearly deserted town, once home to about 30,000 people, outgunned rebels retreated with their wounded to nearby villages to regroup.
"Whoever controls Qusair controls the center of the country, and whoever controls the center of the country controls all of Syria," Syrian Brig. Gen. Yahya Suleiman told Beirut-based Mayadeen television.
The army has "restored security and peace" to Qusair after defeating "terrorist networks," Syrian state TV reported. Video images showed buildings pocked by bullets and artillery and piles of rubble left by weeks of heavy fighting. Smatterings of Syrian flags, one planted on a clock tower, flew amid the destruction as government soldiers fanned out through the streets.
The army said the retaking of the town was "a clear message to all those who share in the aggression on Syria ... that we will continue our string of victories until we regain every inch of Syrian land."
Mohammad Younes Harba, a security officer with the Wadi militia in Qusair, said negotiations took place Tuesday night between the Free Syrian Army and Hezbollah for the opposition fighters to withdraw. During the course of the intense fighting, the rebels' ammunition cache dwindled and few reinforcements arrived, he said in a phone interview.
"Even without ammunition though they would have stayed and fought with the ammunition of the enemy," Harba said of the rebels. "But there is no food, there have been eight days without food, nothing, they aren't able to stand on their feet. They wish for just a piece of bread."
Jaad Yamani, an activist and aid worker on the outskirts of Qusair, said via Skype that the opposition fighters were still stationed in the northern neighborhoods but he was unable to communicate with anyone inside. Meanwhile the town's civilians and injured had been able to flee to the neighboring towns of Bweida and Salhiya.
"It's a battle that we lost," the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition activist network, said in a statement. It added that rebel fighters encountered "missile launchers, mortar shells, airstrikes and shelling, hundreds of martyrs and thousands of injured, a strangling siege and a lack of all of the life basic needs."
The apparent victory by government troops illustrates how entrenched Hezbollah is becoming in Syria. The militant organization has long relied on Damascus as a conduit for Iranian weapons and aid. But Hezbollah risks reprisals in Lebanon from Syrian rebels, anger from neighboring Sunni Muslim states and the danger of agitating Lebanon's sectarian divisions.
"Hezbollah may celebrate their achievement today but they will have to worry about it tomorrow," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "Hezbollah will be dragged further into the Syrian conflict. They're already in Damascus. There is a concentration of Hezbollah troops in Aleppo. Hezbollah has become an intricate part of that war."