AFP – Syrian troops and their Hezbollah allies on Friday tightened the noose on the strategic town of Qusayr, as the rebels said hundreds of fighters had broken through army lines to join the battle.
President Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, said he was “very confident” of victory in Syria’s conflict and threatened Israel with retaliation for any attack, in an interview aired late on Thursday.
In Istanbul, the deeply divided opposition announced agreement on expanding its membership to include more representatives of fighters and activists on the ground following accusations it was out of touch.
But despite extending its talks for five days longer than scheduled, the National Coalition put off until June the election of a new leader and the formation of an interim rebel government.
Assad, whose forces are battling alongside fighters of Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah to recapture Qusayr, said his regime would defeat the revolt which has raged in Syria since March 2011.
“There is a world war being waged against Syria and the policy of (anti-Israeli) resistance… (but) we are very confident of victory,” he said in the interview with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television.
Syrian state television said troops and Hezbollah fighters had captured the Arjun district in the north of Qusayr on Thursday, leaving rebels holed up in the town little chance to escape.
The town controls supply routes vital to both sides and access between Damascus and the Mediterranean.
The Syrian opposition said Friday that hundreds of rebel reinforcements, most close to the Muslim Brotherhood, have reached the town to try to repel the army’s assault.
“Around 1,000 fighters from across Syria” have penetrated the rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border, the National Coalition’s interim leader George Sabra told reporters in Istanbul.
“Hundreds” of rebels have broken through army lines near the village of Shamsinn, northeast of Qusayr, after losing 11 fighters, according to Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Coalition has appealed for the rescue of 1,000 civilians wounded in Qusayr, which Assad’s forces have been trying to seize back in an all-out offensive since May 19.
Lebanese Prime Minister Tamman Salam, meanwhile, said his country should stay out of the Syrian conflict, in an interview published in Friday’s edition of French daily Le Figaro.
“We must at all price preserve national unity,” he said. “And obviously, Hezbollah’s military involvement is not helping matters.”
Assad threatened Israel with renewed fighting on the Golan Heights where a UN-patrolled armistice line has separated the two armies since Israel captured much of the strategic plateau in the 1967 Middle East war.
“There is clear popular pressure to open a new front of resistance in the Golan,” he said, echoing a call from Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah.
“There are several factors, including repeated Israeli aggression,” he added, referring to reported Israeli air strikes on Syria.
“We have informed all the parties who have contacted us that we will respond to any Israeli aggression next time.”
There was no immediate comment on Assad’s remarks from Israel, which has said it does not want to provoke a military “escalation” with Syria, but will not allow it to transfer strategic arms to groups like Hezbollah.
Assad appeared to imply in the interview that Russia had already delivered some of the promised S-300 missiles that have sparked particular concern in Israel.
“All the agreements with Russia will be honoured and some already have been recently,” he said.
But Russia’s Vedomosti and Kommersant newspapers said Moscow may not deliver the missile systems to Damascus this year and rejected claims the weapons had already arrived.
Washington warned that any such weapon deliveries from Moscow would only prolong the conflict, which activists say has killed more than 94,000 people.
Moscow said earlier this week that it would honour the contract to deliver the S-300s to Syria, saying the missiles were a “stabilising factor” which could act as a deterrent against foreign intervention.
Russia could also supply 10 ultra-modern MiG-29 fighter jets to Syria under a possible contract being discussed with a visiting delegation from Damascus, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.
The Observatory, meanwhile, reported that Syrian troops had killed three Westerners, including a US woman and a British man, both Muslims, near the border with Turkey on Wednesday.
“They were shot dead during an ambush in the Idlib region and the army found them with maps of military positions,” said the monitoring group’s director, Abdel Rahman.
On the diplomatic front, the United Nations said a preparatory meeting for a proposed international conference on the Syrian conflict would take place in Geneva next Wednesday, attended by Russian, US and UN officials.