A Syrian government handout photo reportedly shows Syrians returning… (Syrian Arab News Agency )
QUSAIR, Syria — A line of unmarked cars and pickup trucks ferried weary Hezbollah fighters back to Lebanon on Sunday as stunned residents began returning to this war-ravaged town, in Syrian government control again after a fierce three-week battle that ended last week.
Syrian officials staged a boisterous victory rally amid the rubble, but the town they captured bore little resemblance to the one they lost to rebel forces more than a year ago. Every building within several blocks of the town's center appeared to have been badly damaged or destroyed.
The surviving facades were riddled with bullet holes, evidence of the fierce battles that raged here; numerous buildings had collapsed into heaps of debris. Household items — a computer keyboard, a pair of sneakers, a child's coloring book — poked out from the ruins.
Each side had used heavy arms in Qusair and it was impossible to say who had done more damage, the rebels or the government.
Still, Qusair has emerged as a potent symbol of the changing momentum of the more than two-year Syrian civil war, and authorities vowed to rebuild the town and restore services.
"We've cut a major umbilical cord of the opposition," Homs province Gov. Ahmad Munir Mohammad, a staunch loyalist of President Bashar Assad, said in an interview.
Qusair had served as an opposition logistics hub for supplies and fighters from Lebanon, only about 10 miles away. Its fall has provided a major psychological and strategic triumph for the government — and an equally potent blow for Syria's disparate rebel forces, already facing supply shortages and divisions within their ranks.
Syrian authorities displayed captured weapons, explosives, homemade bombs and brand-new rebel khakis emblazoned with the names of rebel brigades and marked in English as "Made in Turkey" — Syria's northern neighbor and a key ally of Syria's opposition forces.
The fall of Qusair marked the latest in a series of battlefield victories for Assad's forces, prompting some analysts to reconsider predictions that he would not last the year. The government declared the town's fall as a "turning point" in the war.
Playing a key role in the battle to take Qusair were militiamen from the Lebanon-based Hezbollah movement. Hezbollah has declared that the fall of Assad, its longtime ally, would pose an existential threat to the group, a dominant political and military force in Lebanon. Hezbollah relies on Syria as a conduit for arms from Iran, a staunch supporter of both the Lebanese group and the Assad regime.
Hezbollah kept a low profile during Sunday's victory celebration, which featured fiery pro-government speeches, crackles of celebratory gunfire and bused-in supporters waving Syrian flags and chanting pro-Assad slogans. Hezbollah's yellow flag was nowhere in evidence during the animated ceremony, held amid the ruins of downtown.
Among the first to return were various families from Qusair's Christian minority, who represented perhaps 10% of the more than 40,000 residents of Qusair. Many arrived to find rubble in place of homes where their families had lived for generations. In front of one row of caved-in structures, several Christian residents profusely thanked a Hezbollah commander for having helped eject the rebels, whom the Christians viewed as hostile to non-Muslims.
"We've come back to our home and we don't have a place to sit or water to drink," said a retired house painter, 66, who gazed forlornly at the battered remains of a pair of adjacent homes where he and his extended family had lived for decades. "I don't understand what kind of freedom [the rebels] were looking for," added the resident, Salim, who, like others, asked to be identified only by his first name for security reasons.
Several holes pierced the gold-colored dome of St. Elias Roman Catholic Church, a prominent structure in the center of town. Inside, the marble altar was broken, the likenesses of saints and Christ were defaced and the walls were filled with anti-Christian graffiti with sayings such as, "The religion of our master will be victorious against all tyrants."
Visitors to the church on Sunday expressed dismay at the sectarian nature of the slogans, apparently scrawled by Muslim extremists among the rebel ranks. Some elements of the Syrian opposition have links to Al Qaeda.
"It's a big shock to see something like this in a church," said Osama Hassan, a government employee and Muslim who was among those walking through St. Elias. "For us, a church is the same as a mosque."
A nearby mosque was also heavily damaged, parts of its minaret having been blasted away.
Residents blamed the rebels for fomenting sectarian differences among a mixed population that had long coexisted seamlessly.
"Here, the Christian and Muslim cemeteries are right next to each other," said one resident. "We never had divisions."