Syrian Forces, Opposition Battle For Qusair

Melissa Block speaks with NPR's Kelly McEvers about the battle for Qusair. McEvers spent much of the day just across the Lebanese border from Qusair, talking with people who have fled the fighting there.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And for more on the battle for Qusair, we turn to NPR's Kelly McEvers. She spent much of the day just across the Lebanese border from Qusair, talking with people who have fled the fighting. Kelly, we just heard Steve Inskeep say that local Syrian government officials and rebel spokesman are saying that government forces are now largely in control of Qusair. How does that line up with what you're hearing?

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: I think it's important to distinguish, when we're talking about Qusair, distinguish between Qusair kind of the region and Qusair the town. Most people are saying, yes, that in terms of the entire region of Qusair, which involves the town and several villages, the government does control most of it. They control an air base where there's been a lot of fighting just outside of the town of Qusair.

What they've done is they've cleared out all these villages around the town and basically put a cordon around the town. The rebels control that center part inside the town, where there are a lot of civilians as well. We're hearing a lot of reports from people inside the center of town, saying that, you know, the hospital is running out of supplies, like basic things like food and water are running short.

BLOCK: And that's got to be a really bleak situation then for the people who live in Qusair, who are caught in the middle of this fighting.

MCEVERS: Yes. It's originally a town of about 30,000 people. Now, people tell us there's about 15,000 people still trapped inside and that, really, there are no formal ways to get in or out. We did talk to a few people who managed to get out, but to do that they had to pay enormous bribes just to get past that cordon, and then, of course, pay another bribe to get a ride to one checkpoint and another bribe to get to another checkpoint, another bribe to get over the border to make it here to Lebanon.

They say the situation is really desperate, that people are fleeing to other villages inside Syria because they don't have anywhere else to go. But they don't feel safe in these villages because they feel like the army could come attack them at any time. And, you know, you've got just people leaving at a moment's notice. You know, we met one family where the woman had to borrow a headscarf because she hadn't even brought an extra one with her.

BLOCK: Kelly, why the fighting in this area? What's the strategic importance of Qusair?

MCEVERS: You know, we just heard Syrian President Bashar al-Assad give a speech, and he was talking about how this town isn't so important. Why is everybody talking about it? But it is important enough for the army to be fighting there so fiercely and for, you know, now, Hezbollah militants to be involved.

What it is is a major transit point along the Syrian and Lebanese border for men and guns, basically, to come from Lebanon into Syria. And for a long time, because the rebels held Qusair, that was, you know, rebel men and guns that could come into Syria.

Now, if the government manages to take it along with Hezbollah, that would be a way for, you know, men and guns from the other side to come from Lebanon into Syria, and, of course, they would stop that transit point for the rebels. So it's important in that way.

There are some people who think that it's also important because it could be a gateway to a swath of territory from the capital, Damascus, all the way up the coast that the government wants to hold onto should the country kind of break apart in some of these rebel-held areas further away. I'm not sure that's what it is. And the president today definitely deny that that's what - was the strategy.

BLOCK: And how is the injection of Hezbollah into these fighting changing things on the ground?

MCEVERS: For many months, the Syrian army was trying to take back Qusair with no success. I mean, using a lot of this sort of indirect fire, occasionally shelling the village. Sometimes you would see air strikes. I mean - so we saw a lot of injuries, a lot of people fleeing the village, but in essence the rebel still held on.

Now that Hezbollah is involved, I mean, the fight has really changed. These are fighters who, well, a lot of people say have more experience on the ground. I think they really turned things around, as far as we can tell, in the favor of the government.

I think also, though, I mean, the more worrying thing is that this has turned this fight into something more sectarian. We talked to a lot of people who escaped Qusair, a lot of Sunni families who said, you know, up until now, we live side by side with our Shiite neighbors. But now that this, you know, very Shiite militia has gotten involved in this fight, we're scared and we're afraid that we'll never be able to go back to what it was.

BLOCK: It's NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut. We were talking about the battles for Qusair in Syria. Kelly, thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

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