The top Army officer for the Syrian rebellion says thousands of foreign fighters from neighboring Lebanon have already crossed the border and may turn the tide for its fight to end the more than 2-year-old civil war.
Fighting continues in the small town of al-Qusair, about 20 miles southwest of Homs and 5 miles from the Lebanese border, considered a key stronghold for success for both the rebel fighters and the Bashar al Assad regime. Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant political group, has reportedly sent fighters to assist President Assad's forces along with backing from the Russians and Iranians.
Regime forces have all but surrounded the city – a critical arms and supply route for Assad to reach the western coast – as of Thursday afternoon, prompting Gen. Salim Idris, the rebel Syrian Military Council chief of staff, to petition for international support.
"Forty thousand Syrian civilians trapped inside Qusair are facing a possible massacre should the besieged town fall to its attackers," said Idris, who defected from the Syrian army last summer, in a letter to the U.N. Security Council.
"We are thus appealing to you to act immediately to put a stop to this egregious attack on Qusair. We are also requesting that you condemn in the strongest language possible the violation by Hezbollah forces of Syrian territory in total disregard of international law," he wrote.
Rebel forces have so far not crossed the Lebanese border to confront the influx of Hezbollah fighters, Idris says. He asks the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon to assist "legitimate Lebanese army forces" to patrol the border to stem the more than 12,000 fighters he says have already entered Syria.
The Syrian regime continues to denounce the attacks from the rebels, which it refers to as "terrorists." It has killed "large numbers" of the fighters in al-Qusair, according to a report from the semi-official SANA news service, citing an unnamed military source.
"Units of the armed forces ambushed a group of terrorists who were trying to flee [al-Qusair] city through Shamsin village near Homs-Damascus highway," the report states. "Large numbers of terrorists were killed and wounded during the operation. A rocket launcher base and a base for firing mortars were also destroyed."
More than 70,000 have died in the fighting and almost 7 million are in need of aid, according to U.N. statistics. Almost 1.5 million Syrians have fled the country.
Peace following more than two years of civil war appeared on the horizon last month after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with senior leaders in Russia, an historic ally of the Assad regime. Kerry and the Obama administration have called for a second conference in Geneva this summer, following an unsuccessful summit there last year in which Russian delegates refused to call for Assad to step down.
This multilateral agreement now seems less likely, following reports Thursday that the Syrian regime received a shipment of Russian long-range S-300 air defense missiles. The Washington Post reports Russia has received requests from Syria for thousands of AK-47 rifles, tens of millions of bullets and other heavy weaponry.
The United Nations Human Rights Council reiterated its calls for peace Wednesday afternoon following the intense fighting in al-Qusair. It passed a resolution in Geneva on Wednesday calling on Syrian authorities to "meet their responsibility to protect the Syrian population and to put an immediate end to all attacks."
"Day after day, children, women and men suffer the brutality of unbridled violence and gross human rights violations by all parties," said Navi Pillay, U.N. high commissioner for Human Rights, in a statement. "The increasing number of foreign fighters crossing Syria's borders to support one side or the other is further fueling the sectarian violence, and the situation is beginning to show worrying signs of destabilizing the region as a whole."