Syrian elite troops rushed to bolster a Hezbollah-led offensive against rebels in the strategic town of Qusayr on Wednesday as the U.N. Human Rights Council debated a resolution condemning the assault.
Russia warned a European Union decision to lift its arms embargo on rebels fighting to oust its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, harmed its joint efforts with the United States to halt the conflict.
Hopes are building for a U.S.-Russian initiative for a peace conference to be held in Geneva next month, but serious obstacles could still scupper the talks - not least divisions within Syria’s opposition.
In Geneva, the U.N.’s rights body debated the draft resolution that calls for a probe into the Qusayr assault by Assad’s forces and its allies, in an implicit reference to Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay told the council that “the increasing number of foreign fighters crossing Syria’s borders... is further fuelling the sectarian violence.
“The situation is beginning to show worrying signs of destabilising the region as a whole,” she warned.
The United States rejected a statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the resolution was “unwholesome” and undermined peace efforts.
“We don’t see this as... undermining in any way” but rather an effort to put rights abuses on record and work towards a solution, said U.S. ambassador to the council Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe.
On the ground, elite Syrian Republican Guards and Hezbollah fighters rushed to Qusayr after government fighter jets pounded rebel areas, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The preparations indicate that they are gearing for a major offensive” on rebel-held areas in the town’s north and west, the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman said, adding that “despite the intense bombardment, the rebels are resisting fiercely.”
Sunni militiamen from Lebanon had joined the battle on the side of the rebels, and “the fighting is becoming more and more sectarian in character,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Syria’s regime is dominated by the minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the majority of the population are Sunnis.
Control of Qusayr is essential for the rebels as it is their principal transit point for weapons and fighters from Lebanon.
The town, which is home to 25,000 people, is also strategic for the regime because it is on the road linking Damascus with the Mediterranean coast, the Alawite heartland.
“If Qusayr falls into the hands of the regime, it will be a hard blow for the rebels because routes used to bring in their arms from Lebanon will be closed,” said Abdel Rahman.
“If Qusayr was not strategic the rebels would not be fighting to the death and the regime and Hezbollah would not have brought in their heavyweights,” he added.
Iran-backed Hezbollah sent almost 1,700 fighters to Qusayr more than a week ago to support the regime’s assault on the rebel stronghold.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has promised his fighters will help deliver “victory” in the battle, seen as pivotal in Syria's drawn out civil war in which more than 94,000 people have died.
Syrian rebel chief Salim Idriss warned on Tuesday that if Hezbollah fighters do not stop their aggression in Syria within 24 hours, “we will take all measures to hunt” them, “even in hell.”
Russia propping up the government
The threat came as Russia insisted it will send promised ground-to-air S-300 missiles to the Syrian government, prompting an Israeli minister to warn that it would act to stop the delivery.
President Assad, who has clung to power despite Western and Arab calls for him to resign, is to be interviewed on Hezbollah television on Thursday, according to his office.
Meanwhile, his divided opponents in the National Coalition were meeting in Istanbul for an unscheduled seventh day under pressure from Turkey and the U.S. to thrash out a common position on the planned Geneva talks.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu arrived at the talks venue as did U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, AFP correspondents reported.