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Syrian Government Troops Take Back Qusair


In Syria, the battle for Qusair is over with the government saying it is in full control of that strategic town, which has been in rebel hands for two years. Qusair sits along a key supply route in and out of Lebanon. And one Syrian general, a government general, told Lebanon's Mayadeen TV that whoever controls Qusair controls the country.

NPR's Kelly McEvers is in Beirut. She joins us now for an update. Good morning.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, is that overstating the situation?

MCEVERS: It probably is. I think whoever controls the Damascus, the capital of Syria, is probably the one who controls the country. Qusair is really important, let's not say it's not. It is along the Syrian-Lebanese border. It's a major supply route for weapons and fighters - either for the rebellion, who was able to bring those weapons and fighters into Qusair from Lebanon, and now for the Syrian army and its backers in the Lebanese-Shiite militia, Hezbollah.

This is an important corridor for them as well to get weapons and fighters from Syria and Lebanon. So it's tactically important on the ground.

It's also important, I think, in terms of who is winning the propaganda war. I mean there's a lot of conversation about who's winning in Syria - is the government winning or are the rebels winning - especially ahead of proposed peace talks in Geneva. So I think this is really a big deal for the government to be able to say but we now have the upper hand.

MONTAGNE: Tell us exactly how that came about, how government troops took back Qusair, which, as we said, has been a stronghold of the rebels.

MCEVERS: It has been of the rebels that the government, you know, off and on, sporadically over the last couple of would shell with indirect fire, would launch air strikes on the town, and there've been heavy casualties in the town but never really managed to take it back. Now, since Hezbollah has entered the fight - it started about three weeks ago - and the government has been able to make gains.

This last push started overnight. It was a surprise kind of ambush on the town, where rebel fighters and thousands of civilians were, sort of, holed up in the center of the town and holding it. They swept into the town, by all accounts, and at one point the rebels did decide to retreat and to take the civilians with them.

The rebels issued their own statement saying that they had retreated. They have gone to a couple of villages north of Qusair with the civilians. The question now is what's going to happen to those civilians if the army and Hezbollah come after them there.

MONTAGNE: Well, what might happen to them now that Hezbollah is so openly and fully involved?

MCEVERS: One of the most striking things, Renee, we saw in the TV coverage today of the center of Qusair, you had a pro-Hezbollah, you know, TV correspondent in the town and there were no people. I mean it was an absolute ghost town. So we know that the civilians have fled. We also know that there were hundreds of injured civilians trapped inside Qusair and we don't know where they're going. We don't know who's taking care of them.

We are in touch with one family that managed to walk out of the city and climb over the mountains to get into Lebanon overnight. But we're talking hundreds and hundreds of people here. And many politicians have been trying to negotiate the safe passage of these people. So that's the real question: Is the army going to go after them, as well. Is it going to allow them safe passage into other villages inside Syria?

Or are you going to see some of these, you know, pro-government militias go in and do the worst thing, which is slaughter civilians we've seen in other parts of Syria?

MONTAGNE: Well, just tell me, Kelly, what is next for Hezbollah?

MCEVERS: Well, the question is now: Does Hezbollah continue fighting on behalf of the Syrian government or is this enough? Was Qusair what they needed to do for the Syrian government to, kind of, win the propaganda war? Or are they going further? We have heard pro-government journalists and pundits saying things like now it's onto Aleppo. This is Syria's biggest city where the fight between government troops and rebels has been going on for some time.

If that's the case, does that mean Hezbollah is all-in this war? And, you know, that doesn't necessarily mean any side is going to win. It could mean that the war is long and protracted.

MONTAGNE: Kelly, thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers speaking to us from Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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