With surprising speed, Syrian government forces overran the last opposition positions in northern Qusayr on Wednesday morning. Al-Akhbar reveals the unofficial story behind this strategic battle.
The last night in Qusayr was unlike any other the armed groups experienced in the embattled Syrian city, which has pitted regime forces supported by Hezbollah against thousands of dug-in opposition fighters.
During the day, the talk among the mainly Islamist and Salafi groups, who had turned Qusayr into a military base for the opposition, was of heroic steadfastness in the face of the invading army.
But by nightfall, all signs of activity in the remaining opposition pockets in the northern part of the city had ceased. There are rumors that under pressure, many betrayed their comrades and surrendered or fled, leaving them to fight a losing battle.
This was not however the picture in the early days of the fighting that took place around Qusayr. Opposition fighters’ morale was at its peak after hearing news that their comrades managed to ambush and kill 24 Hezbollah fighters on the very first day of clashes. In fact, in the first two days of fighting the Lebanese party paid a heavy price in terms of dead and injured.
While some opposition sources say that they managed to lure Hezbollah into a trap, thus inflicting such a high number of casualties, others attribute it to an underestimation of the fighters in the city and a hurried advance on the part of the regime and Hezbollah.
The latter group suggests that the regime’s initial plan to take Qusayr involved a quick attack from three directions, which it calculated would take the fighters by surprise and cause disarray in their ranks.
The armed groups, however, surprised Hezbollah with their fighting capabilities, showing a high level of skill and experience that many of them had gained in other jihad-related conflicts.
This forced the regime to reconsider its plan of attack, instead taking a slower approach that involved softening enemy positions with artillery and air strikes before sending in ground forces. The Syrian army also decided to take more time to surround the city from all directions in order to cut off any support from reaching the fighters.
As for the ambush version of the story, opposition sources claim that they set a trap for Hezbollah by luring them into the city on the basis that the armed groups were prepared to surrender, only to unleash a deadly surprise attack on the unsuspecting Lebanese fighters.
Opposition sources put it differently. They say they were engaged in negotiations with Hezbollah as the siege tightened around Qusayr to facilitate the exit of the remaining civilians in the city. They told the Lebanese party that they were prepared to surrender, but could not do so without a few face-saving, symbolic skirmishes.
As the first clashes progressed, it appeared as if the armed groups were abiding by the agreement, gradually withdrawing from some of their positions. But, having lured the Hezbollah fighters deep into their territory, the opposition fighters ambushed them, killing two dozen and injuring many more.
The fighting continued for another 16 days and the tables were slowly turned against the Qusayr fighters. After the fall of the city into government hands, the opposition admitted defeat and published the names of 431 fighters they said died in the battle.
More reliable opposition sources, however, put the number at over 1,200 dead and 1,000 injured. Al-Akhbar also learned that Hezbollah and government forces managed to capture around 1,000 fighters, including a number of female Chechen snipers and an Australian national, among others. As for Hezbollah, estimates are that it lost 93 fighters, with dozens more injured.