Hezbollah fighters spearheaded an assault that cut off Syrian rebel fighters in the central town of Qusair on Wednesday, drawing condemnation from the U.N. human rights body and a U.S. demand for an immediate withdrawal.
Russia warned that a European Union decision to lift its arms embargo on rebels fighting to oust its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, harmed its joint efforts with the United States to end the conflict.
Hopes are building over a U.S.-Russian initiative for a peace conference to be held in Geneva next month, but serious obstacles could still scupper the talks — not least divisions within Syria’s opposition.
After seven days of talks in Istanbul, four more than scheduled, the opposition National Coalition said it would only attend the proposed conference if a string of conditions were met, including Assad’s resignation.
In Geneva, 36 of the 47 members of the U.N. Human Rights Council voted in favor of a resolution that implicitly refers to the involvement of Hezbollah fighters from neighboring Lebanon in the fierce battle for Qusair.
The nonbinding text put forward by the United States, Turkey and Qatar “condemns the intervention of foreign combatants fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime in Qusair.” It also expressed “deep concern” that the involvement of the fighters could “further exacerbate the deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situation.”
The United States rejected a statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the resolution was “unwholesome” and undermined peace efforts. “We don’t see this as . . . undermining in any way” but rather an effort to put rights abuses on record and work toward a solution, said Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the council.
The U.S. State Department demanded the immediate withdrawal of Hezbollah fighters, with spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying: “This is an unacceptable and extremely dangerous escalation. We demand that Hezbollah withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately.”
The Syrian Army said it had seized the disused Dabaa military airfield north of Qusair, giving pro-Assad forces control of all roads out of the town in a major setback for the besieged rebels. A military source said the battle for the airfield was fierce and lasted several hours.
“The operation led to the liberation of the airport and the deaths of several men who were inside,” the source said. “There are bodies littering the ground, rebels have been captured and others surrendered. The army is now advancing on the town of Dabaa.”
Control of Qusair is essential for the rebels, as it is their principal transit point for weapons and fighters from Lebanon while it helps the army consolidate its grip on a key road from Damascus to the coast — the heartland of Assad’s Alawite community.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television showed live images it said were from Dabaa airfield taken after the army had recaptured the facility.
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said there were some 3,000 to 4,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria, double the 1,700 number previously reported.
The opposition National Coalition is to insist on Assad’s resignation and those of his top security chiefs as a precondition for taking part in next month’s proposed peace conference, according to a text leaked to reporters.
“The head of the regime must resign, alongside the heads of the military and security forces, who must be excluded from the political process,” said the text agreed at the Istanbul talks.
It came after senior envoys from the opposition’s main foreign backers put heavy pressure on delegates to agree a common line in the face of mounting disillusion among rebel fighters on the grounds at the wrangling among exiled leaders.
But the idea of Assad stepping down in advance of the proposed conference was swiftly rejected by the regime.
“Do you want the president to resign before the conference? That is not possible,” Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told the Beirut-based Arab news channel Mayadeen.
Muallem said the regime still planned to send delegates to the planned peace conference and hoped for a positive outcome.
“If we reach an agreement in Geneva, and I hope we will, it will be put to a referendum and if the people approve what we agreed upon, I can assure you it will be fully respected,” he said.