The U.S. State Department called on Hezbollah Wednesday to withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately, hours after the group helped regime forces capture a strategic air base, saying their involvement signaled a dangerous broadening of the war.
President Bashar Assad’s forces, supported by Hezbollah, seized Dabaa air base near the strategic town of Qusair, in a significant blow for rebels trying to oust the regime.
Assad’s troops and Hezbollah fighters already surround Qusair from three sides. Taking control of Dabaa village, seven kilometers to the north, would put the geographically important town under siege from four sides and cut a main reinforcement line for the rebels.
“Our troops are now in full control of Dabaa air base,” Syrian state television said, after five hours of fierce fighting in and around the facility.
Hezbollah’s Manar TV, which has a crew with the government forces, showed tanks being deployed inside the air base and soldiers walking around empty hangars, some making victory signs.
Sixty-five rebels were killed in the battle for the town, the channel said, citing Syrian army officials, adding that an unspecified number of prisoners had been taken hostage.
“We are standing in the airport. It is now safe and secured,” a government officer who took part in the assault said.
Syrian television said the army would now push west, squeezing rebels between the advancing forces and the government-held areas in the center of the town.
Hezbollah fighters in Syria number between 3,000-4,000, French intelligence services said.
“As far as Hezbollah militants present in the battlefield, the figures range from 3,000 to 10,000, our estimates are between 3,000 and 4,000,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French lawmakers.
Hezbollah’s participation in the battle for Qusair, on the Syrian-Lebanese border, risks dragging Lebanon into a conflict that has increasingly become overshadowed by Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned the declaration last weekend by Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah that his combatants were in Syria and would stay in the war “to the end of the road.”
“This is an unacceptable and extremely dangerous escalation. We demand that Hezbollah withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately,” Psaki said at a daily news briefing.
Asked what the United States would do if Hezbollah did not withdraw, Psaki said Washington was pursuing diplomatic solutions but was also “continuing to increase and escalate our aid and support for the [Syrian] opposition.”
In line with such a policy, White House spokesperson Jay Carney told reporters that Obama had not ruled out the idea of a no-fly zone over Syria.
However, a no-fly zone would likely to undermine U.S.-Russia initiative to bring Assad’s regime and the opposition-in-exile to a major peace conference next month.
Syria’s foreign minister laid out a hard line Wednesday, insisting that Assad would remain Syria’s president at least until elections in 2014 – a demand that will further complicate efforts to bring the opposition to the Geneva talks in June.
“From now until the next election, President Bashar Assad is president of the Syrian Arab Republic,” Walid al-Moallem said. “Will Assad run in 2014 or not? This depends on the circumstances in 2014 and on the popular will. If the people want him to run, he will run. If the people don’t want that, I don’t think he will. Let us not jump the gun.”
His comments highlighted the wide gap between the regime and the opposition on the terms of the Geneva talks, the international community’s only plan at the moment for trying to end the civil war.
The opposition has demanded that Assad’s departure from power top the agenda of any peace talks.
In its first official reaction to the Geneva conference, the opposition coalition adopted a declaration Wednesday calling for “binding international guarantees” for any resolution of Syria’s more than 2-year-old conflict. The statement, issued after seven days of meetings riven by internal dispute, demanded “the removal of the head of the regime and the security and military command.”
The talks have been marred by disagreement within the coalition over expanding its membership and appointing a new leadership. Lack of unity has threatened to rob the Islamist-dominated alliance of international support.
The 60-member coalition has so far failed to agree on the wider involvement of a liberal opposition bloc, to the dismay of Western and some Arab backers keen to reduce Islamist influence.
Further evidence of dissent among the rebels emerged Wednesday when opposition groups in Syria accused their counterparts in exile of undermining the rebellion and lacking legitimacy.
Dismayed by the “ongoing discord,” a statement by four leading opposition groups in Syria dismissed attempts to expand the coalition as having “no real impact on the revolution” and said at least half the coalition’s leadership bodies should be made of “revolutionary forces.”
The groups’ statement, issued in the name of the Revolutionary Movement in Syria, said it could not “bestow legitimacy upon any political body that subverts the revolution.”
The coalition’s failure to agree even the basic structure of its membership bodes ill for a unified stance on the peace talks, which aim to agree on a transitional government to end a conflict that has killed 80,000 people, according to U.N figures.
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