QUSAIR, Syria — Ecstatic Syrian authorities staged a victory rally Sunday in the center of this battered but strategic town, where rebels were routed last week after having held control for more than a year, using it as a major logistics hub.
With the government firmly in control, Hezbollah fighters were headed back to Lebanon, and stunned residents began trickling back to a war-ravaged town that has come to symbolize a resurgent government position in the more than two-year war.
“We’ve cut a major umbilical cord of the opposition,” Homs Gov. Ahmad Munir Mohammad, a staunch loyalist of President Bashar Assad, said in an interview.
Qusair had long served as an opposition conduit for supplies and rebel fighters entering from Lebanon, less than 10 miles away. After its fall, Syrian authorities displayed captured weapons, explosives, homemade bombs and brand-new rebel khakis bearing the names of rebel brigades and marked “Made in Turkey,” Syria’s northern neighbor and a key ally of Syria’s disparate rebel forces.
Playing a key role in the three-week battle to take Qusair were militiamen from the Lebanon-based Hezbollah movement, which has declared that Assad’s fall would pose a threat to the existence of the group, a dominant political and military force in Lebanon. Hezbollah relies on Syria as a conduit for weapons from Iran, its strongest supporter.
A line of unmarked cars and pickup trucks ferrying Hezbollah fighters was seen Sunday headed back toward the Lebanese border, an indication that the group’s work there is apparently finished for the moment.
Hezbollah kept a low profile during the victory celebration, which featured fiery pro-government speeches, crackles of celebratory gunfire and bused-in supporters waving Syrian flags. Hezbollah’s yellow flag was nowhere in evidence during the boisterous ceremony, held amid the ruins of downtown and in front of the heavily damaged Roman Catholic Church of St. Elias, spiritual home of Qusair’s large Christian community.
There has been no official word on casualties in the battle for Qusair, but residents and others interviewed indicated that the toll was high on both sides in days of street fighting to push back rebel forces. One Hezbollah commander said privately that 80 of the Lebanese militiamen had been killed in the battle, but Hezbollah has not confirmed how many of its forces were lost. The Syrian government and the opposition command have not confirmed their casualties either.