Agence France-Presse

What's the big deal about Qusayr?

A Syrian army's soldier a flag featuring Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in front of a building left in ruins in the city of Qusayr on June 5.
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The latest reports from Syrian media indicate that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces have recaptured the strategic town of Qusayr, which has been the epicenter of a raging battle between Syrian regime troops and Hezbollah fighters on one hand, and Syrian rebels on the other. 

But what makes this town on the Syria-Lebanon border region so important?

Supply route and gateway

Close to the embattled city of Homs, Qusayr lies on a crucial supply route between Syria and Lebanon. Since it was in rebel hands for more than a year, it denied Assad's regime forces passage to Homs province, and allowed the rebels to smuggle weapons across the border and to both the Homs and Damascus frontlines. 

Rebels in Qusayr also hindered Assad's forces from accessing the coastal heartland of the Alawite sect (a minority offshoot of Shia Islam, to which the Syrian president belongs). Some speculate Assad would seek refuge there — via the Mediterranean port of Tartous — if Damascus fell.

"Whoever controls Qusayr, controls the center of the country, and whoever controls the center of the country controls all of Syria," Syrian Brigadier-General Yahya Suleiman told Beirut-based Mayadeen TV

Or as BBC put it, "The government needs to maintain control of the road if it wants to force the rebels from their remaining strongholds in Homs, and ensure it can easily resupply and reinforce troops in the north."

More from GlobalPost: Qusayr captured: Syria’s army regains control of strategic town

Civilians and wounded

As many as 20,000 civilians are currently thought to be trapped in Qusayr.

Humanitarian agencies warned in the meantime that as many as 1,500 wounded were trapped in the town. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon led calls for a ceasefire, which would allow civilians to be evacuated. 

However, Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, said, "Syrian authorities will allow the Red Cross in cooperation with the Syrian Red Crescent access to the area immediately after the end of military operations."

He added, "What the Syrian Arab Army is doing is to free these citizens from the terrorism of these armed terrorist groups and return security and stability to Qusayr and the surrounding area."

Hezbollah's involvement

Assad's forces launched a ground assault on the town on May 19, after weeks of bombardment by government artillery and aircraft. They were aided by fighters from Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, which has drawn international condemnation for its involvement in Syria's war.

Hezbollah was already helping block rebel movements along the border, but its leader Hassan Nasrallah confirmed that his fighters were actively taking part in the Syrian conflict.

A Sunni Lebanese smuggler who helped transfer weapons and supplies across the Syrian-Lebanese border told GlobalPost's Jeff Neumann, "Hezbollah has cut off almost all of our supply routes to the city."

Turning point

The win for Assad's forces marks a major turning point in the Syrian conflict. Though it doesn't mark a clear victory for the government's troops, it does indicate that the conflict will drag on if the rebels lose ground. 

A victory for regime forces in Qusayr will likely discourage the government from engaging in peace talks planned for next month with opposition leaders. According to GlobalPost Senior Correspondent Tracey Shelton, "If the regime feels they have the capacity to retake the country by force, they will be reluctant to cut a deal."

The rebels made the decision to pull out "in face of this huge arsenal (of pro-Assad forces) and a lack of supplies and the blatant intervention of Hezbollah ... Dozens of fighters stayed behind and ensured the withdrawal of their comrades along with the civilians," according to a statement. 

A rebel commander in contact with the rebel fighters also said the decision was made as chances for an escape route dwindled. "An exit remained open from the north and the fighters took a decision to leave from there." 

The for the Syrian regime, with the aid of Hezbollah troops, has further divided the country and region along sectarian lines. Shortly after victory was declared, the Shia state of Iran sent congratulations to Damascus while rebel forces shelled Shia villages in other areas.

The AP has raw video of the town:

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