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Syria loyalists in Damascus cheered by Qusair victory

Supporters of Syria's Bashar Assad in a Damascus neighborhood believe the long war is at a turning point after successes in Qusair and elsewhere.

June 06, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times
  • Syrian army troops drive through the ravaged streets of Qusair this week.
Syrian army troops drive through the ravaged streets of Qusair this week. (AFP/Getty Images )

DAMASCUS, Syria — After two years of grinding conflict, they are talking victory in Mazzeh Jabal 86, a gritty urban hillside where narrow alleys are festooned with jury-rigged electrical cables and testimonials to the "martyrs" lost fighting for the government of President Bashar Assad.

Televisions were tuned Thursday to images of troops advancing through the rubble of Qusair, which had been a rebel logistics hub for more than a year before being overrun this week by the Syrian army and allies from Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

While rebels tried to regroup and foreign governments focused on the expanding role of the Hezbollah militant group, the victory in Qusair resonated deeply in government strongholds here in the capital.

"We never thought of defeat; now we know the final triumph is coming," said a man who identified himself as Ali. He was standing with a group of young men outside his vegetable stand in Mazzeh Jabal 86, a working-class enclave where images of Assad and his late father gaze from buildings.

A few yards from where they were standing, a rebel car bomb exploded in November, killing more than a dozen people and destroying apartment buildings and shops.

The victory in Qusair was one of a string of recent battlefield successes that has not only improved the government's strategic position, but also boosted morale among loyalists in the capital and elsewhere. Government officials called the Qusair campaign a "strategic turning point" in the war against rebels trying to overthrow Assad.

However, rebel forces still control vast stretches of northern and eastern Syria. They operate in central Syria and maintain a foothold in the suburbs of Damascus.

The thud of military artillery rounds still resounds in the capital, and ubiquitous checkpoints clog the traffic. The threat of car bombs and mortar rounds from rebels based in nearby suburbs is constant. An underlying tension belies everyday signs of normality.

But residents in various districts under government control made it clear that Assad still maintains considerable popular support, his backing seemingly bolstered by the military advances and reports of rebel atrocities. Instead of weakening resolve, the lengthy conflict may have hardened solidarity among those who view the president as holding back a wave of Islamic extremists funded by Turkey, Arab states and the West.

"Now that we have closed the Qusair front, other fronts will follow," predicted Anas, an antiques merchant in the Old City just across from the landmark Umayyad Mosque, who displayed his collection of daggers to visitors, bemoaning the lack of tourists since the revolt broke out. "This so-called revolution is not of our making."

In the Jaramana district, one of a number of neighborhoods that have set up "self-defense" committees to keep out rebel car bombers and attackers, a former law student working as a waiter wondered why it took so long to capture Qusair.

"They went in too late; the place is completely destroyed," said the waiter, Ahmed, who, like many others interviewed, declined to provide his last name for security.

On the outskirts of Qusair on Thursday, rebels said they were regrouping and waiting for orders. Bashir Saleh, an activist with the Aleppo-based Al Tawheed Brigade, which had reinforced local fighters in Qusair, said opposition fighters were repositioning themselves outside town and awaiting orders.

"The battle will continue, but with different tactics," declared Saleh.

Fierce fighting between rebels and government troops erupted at another location Thursday, a United Nations-monitored checkpoint near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The checkpoint near the town of Quneitra, Syria's sole crossing into the Golan Heights, was overrun in the morning by rebels but reportedly recaptured a few hours later. Fighting continued in the area and the U.N. described the situation as fluid.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki questioned the Syrian government's ability to reassert military or political control over the entire country.

"We must not lose sight of the significant progress the armed opposition has made over the past two years when faced with tremendously disproportionate force," she said, and events in Qusair were "a significant example of the influx of foreign fighters, the influence of Hezbollah and the impact that has had on the ground in Syria."

Although Hezbollah militants from Lebanon have joined Assad's forces, thousands of foreign fighters from across the Arab world and elsewhere are said to be fighting on the rebel side.

In Damascus, the military appears to have mostly cleared rebels from within city limits. But opposition fighters remain ensconced in nearby suburbs such as Jobar, which is less than a mile from the strategic traffic roundabout at Abaseen Square, one of a number of urban front lines in the capital. The military is present in force at the square and in an adjoining stadium, ready to repel the next rebel advance.

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