A day after Syrian troops took back the strategically important town of Qusair, a UN-monitored crossing in the Golan Heights is now back under Syrian control. Rebels had seized the crossing in a barrage of explosions and heavy shelling, only for the army to regain control of the symbolically significant crossing near Quneitra hours later.
Close to the disengagement line with Israel, Quneitra is the crossing-point used by many locals with family members living on both sides of the border. It is yet another front where Syria’s neighbors could be drawn in as violence threatens to spill over, as a successful occupation by rebel forces could open up the de facto border to attack.
Austria reports that it has withdrawn UN peacekeepers amidst the fighting, in which armored vehicles and tanks were employed. The government said that it now intends to remove its troops out completely due to safety concerns. Austria’s troops making up roughly a third of of the UN forces guarding Qusair and the demilitarized zone.
France has stated that the international community is obliged to act as proof of chemical weapons use in Syria continues to grow. Russia and the US, however, have not yet set a date for the proposed peace talks as international efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict continue, and it is now expected that the conference may have to take place in July rather than in June as originally intended. The failure of Russia and the US has been called ‘embarrassing’ by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League Envoy to Syria. However, he did also acknowledge that both sides in the Syrian conflict have yet to commit to attending the peace talks.
According to UN sources, more than 80,000 people have died and more than 1.5 million have fled Syria since the uprising against the president began in 2011.
By using tanks in the demilitarised zone, Syria has violated the ceasefire agreement that has been in place since the end of the Arab-Israeli war in 1973. Israel is thought to be unlikely to react, but officials have spoken about their growing concerns that Syria’s civil war might spill over their borders. The Golan Heights would be an ideal stronghold from which to launch attacks against Israel, whether those attacks were to come from rebel forces or from Lebanese Hezbollah militants on the side of the Syrian government.
The town of Qusair, just 6 miles from the border with Lebanon and close to important supply routes, now lies deserted, except for Syrian and Hezbollah troops. The rebel forces retreated with a significant number of deaths as the troops advanced rapidly, according to Syrian television reports.
Meanwhile, heavy fighting continues around the Syria’s capital, Damascus, with government forces attempting to push the rebels back from the suburbs.