For over a week now, the Syrian town of Qusayr in Homs Province has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the two-year conflict. The struggle for Qusayr, says besieged President Bashar al-Assad, “is the main battle” in all of Syria. Lying adjacent to a highway linking Homs to the north and Damascus to the south, Qusayr is only a few miles from the Lebanese border and is thus a strategically vital node for both the regime and the rebels.
For the rebels, it’s part of a western supply route linked to Tripoli in northern Lebanon, where the rebels have enjoyed support since the uprising began in March 2011. For the Assad regime, Qusayr links Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon to the Alawite homeland on the Mediterranean coast, where Assad and his supporters will likely seek safe haven should they lose Damascus. In order to retake Qusayr from the rebels who have held it almost a year, the regime has ordered air strikes and called in reinforcements from Hezbollah as well as Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps forces.
Earlier reports suggested that Assad and allies had pushed the rebels out, but opposition activists say this is regime propaganda. "It's not true what the regime is claiming," said one Qusayr-based activist. "They're saying this to raise the morale of the fighters, because the rebels are giving them a beating." Indeed, Hezbollah itself seems to be absorbing heavy casualties, with 46 reportedly killed in Qusayr over the last week. Other sources claim that given the number of funerals in southern Lebanon and other Hezbollah-controlled regions over the last few days, the death toll may be closer to 100.
As Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes in NOW Lebanon, “If the casualty rate stays this high even for another week, it could prove devastating.” Badran explains that many of those killed in the first day of fighting were ambushed during the initial assault and “cut down by landmines and IED’s prepared by the Syrian rebels.” The rebels, writes Badran, “received assistance from certain Palestinian factions in planning the defense of the town.” Unconfirmed reports suggest that those Palestinian factions may include Hamas. In other words, two militias trained and armed by Iran—one Sunni, one Shia—may now be shooting at each other, with the side that the Islamic Republic has invested in most heavily losing.
At this point, it’s perhaps most accurate to describe the war not in terms of the Sunni-majority opposition vs. Assad, but the rebels vs. a large Iranian-trained and supplied force, including Assad’s military, his paramilitary gangs, Hezbollah, IRGC units, the popular militias, as well as Iranian-backed organizations from Iraq, like Asaib ahl al-Haq and Kitaeb Hezbollah. As Elliott Abrams writes in this week's issue, the supreme leader "wants to win and he understands that whether he wins or loses is immensely important." Indeed, given the amount of resources Tehran has now poured into winning Syria, it’s no longer Assad’s regime, but Iran’s. If Assad was once Iran’s junior partner, he’s now simply an Iranian protégé, and not necessarily the most important one fighting in Syria. That would probably be Hezbollah, which is why Qusayr is a key battlefield. Even if Assad doesn’t survive, key remnants of the regime will, and therefore holding that corridor between the Alawite coastal region and Hezbollah-held areas of Lebanon is a vital Iranian interest. What matters to Iran is not Assad, but the territory.