Posts Tagged ‘ White Mist Revolution ’

Syria war wreaks havoc on drug industry

July 01, 2013

By Lysandra Ohrstrom

The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Thousands of businesses have been destroyed over the course of the Syrian conflict, but few of the war’s economic casualties have had such immediate consequences for public health as the collapse of the country’s pharmaceutical industry. In the late 1980s, Syria’s pharmaceutical sector consisted of two state-owned plants whose combined production accounted for just 6 percent of the country’s needs and the annual expenditure on imported medicine averaged $700 million. By 2010, following a wave of government-led economic liberalization in the early 1990s, Syria boasted 70 privately owned pharmaceutical plants that mainly produced low-cost generic drugs and employed at least 17,000 people – 85 percent of whom were women – according to a survey conducted by the Syrian Health Ministry and the World Health Organization in 2011.

The market was valued at $620 million, more than $400 million of which served the local market and supplied 91 percent of the nation’s pharmaceutical needs. The remainder – which cost anywhere from 30 to 70 percent less than comparable products in neighboring markets – was exported to approximately 52 countries, making Syria the second-largest drug supplier in the region.

Heavily concentrated in Aleppo, the industry has been decimated by the fighting and its many side affects over the past two years. At least 25 Syrian pharmaceutical plants have been completely destroyed by the fighting or taken over by militias, and most of the others have been forced to suspend production due to sky-rocketing costs; the difficulties of transporting, distributing, and storing pharmaceutical shipments across the country; and the inability to access raw materials, according to a representative of one international non-governmental organization operating on the ground in Syria who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A handful of factories continue to operate sporadically at barely a third of their pre-crisis capacities, but overall pharmaceutical production in Syria has dropped 75 percent since 2010, according to the most recent Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan released by the United Nations in June.

Demand for medicine has surged during the same period, and as a result, the country has experienced a critical shortage of pharmaceutical products since July 2012, the SHARP report said. Treatment for chronic diseases has been “severely interrupted,” vaccination coverage has dropped from 95 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in 2013, and pharmaceutical products that were once produced in Syria at affordable prices – such as insulin, oxygen, anesthetics, serums and intravenous fluids – are no longer available.

The aid worker said the government has been in talks with countries such as Iran, Belarus and Cuba about importing medicine, but even if transit difficulties were overcome both government health expenditures and the purchasing power of the population have plummeted severely alongside the value of the pound.

“Even for a rich country, 500,000 injured is nearly impossible to cope with,” the aid worker told The Daily Star. “Around Homs you’ve started to see people selling traditional local medicines at the market because nothing else is available.”

According to interviews with managers or owners of four Syrian pharmaceutical factories that have continued to manufacture throughout the crisis at varying levels, between 10 to 15 such plants in the country are currently operating.

Three in Damascus are reportedly running at full capacity, though the Daily Star was only able to reach one of them for confirmation.

All the sources spoke on condition of anonymity and asked that the names of their companies not be revealed, because so many manufacturing facilities have been targeted in the conflict.

“Before the problems we were No. 7 in the market and still there is a lot of demand for our products,” said the owner of one pharmaceutical factory that is currently operating at 20 to 25 percent of capacity.

“The problem is getting raw materials and the cost of production.”

Before the crisis, drug manufacturers relied on raw materials imported to the port of Latakia or by air to Syria from Europe, Australia and the U.S., according to a joint report by the WHO and the Syrian Health Ministry. The company owner said he was currently importing raw materials through Lebanon, but was having difficulty clearing the shipments through customs because the Lebanese Health Ministry was “giving Syrian manufacturers a lot of trouble about clearing our shipments.”

When his company is able to obtain raw materials, he is forced to sell at a loss because the law requires pharmaceutical manufacturers to abide by prices set by the Syrian Health Ministry which have not been modified since the value of the Syrian pound was 48 to the dollar. “The ministry hasn’t changed the prices and they won’t, so we have to sell the products at a quarter of their market value,” the source said. “We stopped selling on the local market because we were losing money so we are trying to maintain exports because we can sell those in dollars,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Syrian government announced that it would resume financing imported raw materials again after the program was suspended in May. Though the source said the government opened a few new lines of credit for industrialists last week, they were still pricing the pound at 175 to 180 to the dollar, which is far below the black-market exchange rate of a minimum of 200 to the dollar that manufacturers have to buy supplies at, he said, so even with the state funds, he was producing at a loss. “We are trying to convince the prime minister and the health minister that they need to support the industry by raising the price we are allowed to sell medicine for,” the source said. “I cannot pay $5 for something and sell it for $1. I should be able to sell it at $5.50.”

The owner of a different Syrian pharmaceutical company that is currently producing about 40 percent of the medicine it manufactured before the war also cited the prewar medicine prices as one of the many obstacles facing the sector, along with the lack of transit and banking tools at their disposal. “There are problems everywhere in the cycle,” he told The Daily Star. “We are facing huge losses on production costs. Then there is the difficulty shipping within Syria. Then once we finish the transit, we don’t have a distributor. Then when we get shipments to pharmacists they don’t want to hold on to them for more than one or two days, because they are afraid they will get stolen and their stores would become targets.”

He singled out the inability to make and receive transfers through international banks as the single largest impediment to doing business. “Although pharmaceutical products are not subject to international sanctions, the banks don’t differentiate between medical and humanitarian goods and other products so they block us,” he said. “All of our credit lines have been terminated. Whenever we want to transfer money to someone to buy raw materials, they see Syria and they reject transfer. Most suppliers won’t deal with Syria, even if there is a humanitarian need.”

Despite these obstacles, the functioning factories are managing collectively to produce enough to meet between 5 and 10 percent of the nation’s pharmaceutical needs. “The best thing for us would be to stop completely, but for humanitarian reasons we can’t,” he said. “The only solution is for the U.S. to instruct all banks and companies to accept transfers to and from Syria for humanitarian reasons.”

A manager of one of the three factories that is still operating in Damascus at full capacity said that his company was negotiating with the government to increase the price pharmaceutical manufacturers are allowed to charge for certain essential medicines and expects the ministry to announce the new regulations in the near future. When asked whether the factory would still be operating at a loss after the new prices take affect he said, “We are not working at this time for profit.”

Source: The Daily Star.



Insight: Kuwaitis campaign privately to arm Syrian rebels

By Sylvia Westall and Mahmoud Harby

KUWAIT | Thu Jun 27, 2013

(Reuters) – At a traditional evening meeting known as a “diwaniya”, Kuwaiti men drop banknotes into a box, opening a campaign to arm up to 12,000 anti-government fighters in Syria. A new Mercedes is parked outside to be auctioned off for cash.

They are Sunni Muslim and mainly Islamist like many Syrian rebels who have been trying for two years to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect that is a branch of Shi’ite Islam.

Syria’s war has widened a faultline in the Middle East, with Shi’ite Iran and Lebanese militia Hezbollah backing Assad and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab nations supporting his opponents.

“The world has abandoned the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution so it is normal that people start to give money to people who are fighting,” said Falah al-Sawagh, a former opposition member of Kuwait’s parliament, surrounded by friends drinking sweet tea and eating cakes.

In just four hours the campaign collected 80,000 dinars ($282,500). The box moves to a new house each day for a week. Sawagh estimates this type of campaign in Kuwait, one of the world’s richest countries per capita, raised several million dollars during the last Ramadan religious holiday.

Sunni-ruled Kuwait has denounced the Syrian army’s actions and sent $300 million in humanitarian aid to help the millions displaced by the conflict in which more than 90,000 have died.

Unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Kuwaiti government policy is against arming the rebels. But the U.S. ally allows more public debate than other Gulf states and has tolerated campaigns in private houses or on social media that are difficult to control.

Kuwaiti authorities are nevertheless worried that the fundraising for Syria could stir sectarian tensions – Kuwait has its own Shi’ite minority. The West is concerned that support will bolster al Qaeda militants among the rebels.

Some opposition Islamist politicians and Sunni clerics have openly campaigned to arm rebel fighters, using social media and posters with telephone hotlines in public places. Former MP Waleed al-Tabtabie, a conservative Salafi Islamist, posted pictures of himself on Twitter clad in combat gear in Syria.

“There is a great amount of sympathy on the part of the Kuwaiti people to provide any kind of assistance to the Syrian people whether inside or outside Syria,” Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah said when asked about the Reuters report.

Official Kuwaiti fundraising for humanitarian aid goes through United Nations channels, he said, at a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

As for unofficial fundraising, he emphasized that any collection of funds requires a special permit to make sure the money “is going to the right side or to the right party.”

Kuwait’s minister for cabinet affairs, Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak al-Sabah, said what was happening in Syria was “heart-wrenching” and understood why Kuwaitis wanted to help.

“Human nature is such that you cannot control what people believe in and how they want to act,” he said.

“What is happening in Syria just inflames the emotions on both sides. That’s why we are trying to steer a middle ground.”


Syria is blocked from international bank transfers from Kuwait because of sanctions, so former MP Sawagh visited the Syrian town of Aleppo last month with cash in his luggage for rebel fighters. He did not say how much he took.

“Our only rule is to collect money and to deliver this money to our brothers which are helping the Syrian people,” said Sawagh, a member of a local group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood which is in power in Egypt and is influential in other Arab states.

Sawagh and others in his campaign also travel to Turkey and Jordan to hand over money to intermediaries.

“They have absolute freedom to spend this money. If they can recruit mujahideen for defending themselves and their sanctity with this money, then this is their choice,” he said, referring to fighters who engage in jihad or holy war.

Washington is worried the money may help strengthen fighters with links to al Qaeda who are hostile not just to Assad but also to the United States and U.S.-allied Gulf ruling families.

It wants Western and Arab allies to direct all aid to Syrian rebels through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council.

A fiery speech by Kuwaiti Sunni Muslim cleric Shafi al-Ajami raised alarm earlier this month with a call for more arms.

“The mujahideen, we are arming them from here, and from the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey,” he said.

The speech was laced with references to the sectarian nature of the conflict and unnerved authorities in Kuwait where Shi’ites make up an estimated 15 to 20 percent minority of the population. Parliament, the cabinet and the ruling emir issued strong rebukes.

“I do not hide from you feelings of anxiety about what emerged recently … manifestations and practices that carry the abhorrent breath of sectarianism which should be denounced,” Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah said on state television. Such acts could “lure the fire of fanaticism and extremism,” he said.


Ajami spoke following a call by prominent cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian based in Qatar, for jihad in Syria after fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group, intervened to help Assad’s army.

The calls to holy war by several influential clerics in the region only encouraged more donations, Kuwaitis said.

“Women have also been donating their gold,” said Bader al-Dahoum, a former Islamist opposition MP.

“After the fatwas (edicts), people are giving more.”

The men at the diwaniya said one large Kuwaiti family planned to equip 28 mujahideen in Syria, estimating the cost at 700 dinars per fighter. Smaller families sponsor two or three, while a member of one of Kuwait’s powerful merchant families donated 250,000 dinars.

Weapons supplied by Qatar and its allies include small arms such as AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenades, hand grenades and ammunition, according to a Qatari official. Qatar also provides instructions on battlefield techniques.

Campaigning for funds to arm the rebels makes certain politicians more popular in Kuwait, said Osama al-Munawer, a former opposition MP.

“I was a member of the National Assembly and people were blaming us – why don’t you give them weapons?” he said.

“They said, food – they have it, but they need to defend themselves because the situation is very bad.”

(Additional reporting by William Maclean and Ahmed Hagagy; editing by Anna Willard and Janet McBride)

Source: Reuters.


Syria opposition welcomes aid boost for rebels

Beirut (AFP)

June 23, 2013

Syria’s main opposition group on Sunday welcomed a decision by Arab and Western governments to boost their assistance to rebel fighters but said more such moves were needed to end the 27-month conflict.

“The Syrian National Coalition thanks the (Friends of Syria) countries for their decisions, and welcomes the assistance that they pledged,” the group said.

“More steps of this decisive nature remain necessary, in order to end the conflict quickly, to stop Syrians’ blood from being spilt, and to make sure their aspirations are fulfilled.”

The National Coalition said that it regretted that the decision to boost assistance to the rebels had not come sooner.

It said “thousands of… lives could have been saved,” had the decision been taken earlier.

The opposition’s statement came a day after Qatar said the Friends of Syria had agreed on a “secret” plan to ramp up assistance to the rebels.

At the meeting in Doha, US Secretary of State John Kerry pledged new support for the rebels to end an “imbalance” in President Bashar al-Assad’s favour.

The National Coalition did not have an official delegation at the meeting.

Source: Space War.


Syria rebels say now have ‘game-changing’ weapons

Beirut, Lebanon (AFP)

June 21, 2013

Syrian rebels have recently received new weapons that could “change the course of the battle” against the Syrian regime, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army told AFP on Friday.

The “Friends of Syria” group of countries that support the rebels is expected to announce in Doha on Saturday that it will arm the opposition, FSA media and political coordinator spokesman Louay Muqdad said.

“We’ve received quantities of new types of weapons, including some that we asked for and that we believe will change the course of the battle on the ground.

“We have begun distributing them on the front lines, they will be in the hands of professional officers and FSA fighters,” he said.

He did not specify what weapons had been received or when they had arrived, but added that a new shipment was expected in the coming days and recalled that the rebels had asked for “deterrent weapons”.

“That means anti-aircraft weapons, anti-tank weapons, as well as ammunition,” he said.

Senior opposition figure Burhan Ghalioun confirmed that the FSA had recently received “sophisticated weapons” including “an anti-aircraft defense system”.

Another opposition source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the system was “Russian-made” but declined to say which country had supplied it.

The apparent influx of arms comes after the United States said it would provide rebel forces with “military support”, although it has declined to outline what that might entail.

“The weapons will be used for one objective, which is to fight the regime of (President) Bashar al-Assad,” Muqdad insisted.

“They will be collected after the fall of the regime, we have made this commitment to the friends and brotherly countries” that supplied the arms, he said.

On Thursday, Muqdad said rebels needed short-range ground-to-air missiles, surface-to-air missiles known as MANPADs, anti-tank missiles, mortars and ammunition.

Saturday’s Friends of Syria talks in Qatar will be attended by ministers from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

They are expected to discuss military help and other aid for rebels after an onslaught by government forces who have retaken key areas.

“We are optimistic because the international community has finally decided to protect the Syrian people and Syrian civilians and arm the FSA,” Muqdad said.

He added that rebels were expecting “a clear and official announcement by the countries participating (in Doha) on the arming of the FSA”.

“That’s what we are hoping for, that’s what we are waiting for,” he added, declining to say which countries were providing new weaponry.

“We received information that in the coming days, we will receive new shipments of weapons that will change the course of the battle and the equation of death imposed by Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

Muqdad said that FSA chief of staff General Salim Idriss was not expected to attend the Doha gathering.

“For now, our presence is not required” because “all the countries are aware of the clear demands of the revolution after numerous meetings with Idriss.”

Syrian rebels have frequently urged nations that back the uprising to supply them with heavy weapons to tackle the regime.

But their backers, especially in the West, have been reluctant to do so for fear that those weapons could fall into the hands of radical rebel groups such as the Al-Qaeda-allied Al-Nusra Front.

Source: Space War.


Rocket near Beirut brings Syrian war closer

June 21, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — A rocket slammed into a suburb of Beirut on Friday, bringing the conflict in neighboring Syria closer to Lebanon’s bustling capital and reviving bitter memories of the country’s own devastating civil war.

With skirmishes between Shiites and Sunnis on the rise around the country, religiously mixed and highly vulnerable Lebanon is increasingly buffeted by powerful forces that are dividing the Arab world along sectarian lines.

There were no casualties from the rocket, which struck a Christian area southeast of Beirut overnight, but the incident raised fears that Lebanon was being sucked into a war that has already paralyzed state institutions and strained its economy with the presence of more than a half-million Syrian refugees.

“This is very, very dangerous,” said Pierre Ashkar, head of a syndicate of hotel owners, referring to the potential damage to the tourism industry from such rocket attacks. He said his daughter and her husband were among scores who have canceled plans to come Lebanon.

“When our kids can’t come to Lebanon, I don’t know how a French, British or even a Saudi and Kuwaiti can,” he told The Associated Press. For the most part, Lebanon has stayed on the sidelines of the Arab Spring, keeping up its appearance as an oasis of relative stability, which has helped its tourism and entertainment businesses.

The Lebanese — and the tens of thousands of expatriates and Gulf Arab tourists who visit every summer — have learned to live with the country’s occasional bouts of upheaval and violence, including huge street protests that followed the assassination of a former prime minister in 2005 and deadly street clashes in 2008, when the militant Shiite Hezbollah group briefly overran parts of Beirut.

Beneath the surface lurk the same forces that devastated the country in its years of civil war, with simmering hatreds still dividing Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, and secular and fundamentalist groups.

The Lebanese civil war began in 1975 with clashes between mostly Muslim Palestinian factions and Christian militiamen, and eventually turned into a Christian-Muslim civil war in which external players like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Western countries used the country as a battleground.

The uprising in Syria against President Bashar Assad, which began in March 2011, brought sectarian tensions to the surface and has inflamed rivalries. The two countries share a complex web of political and sectarian ties, and Lebanon is deeply divided into pro- and anti-Assad groups, a legacy of Syria’s long dominance of its small neighbor.

Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims mostly back the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels in Syria, while many Shiites support Assad, who is a member of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Sectarian tensions sharply increased after the Shiite militant group Hezbollah openly joined Assad’s forces in fighting the rebels seeking his ouster. Lebanon has seen repeated bursts of violence, but it has mostly been restricted to border areas and the northern city of Tripoli.

Rockets from Syria fall regularly into towns and villages near the border. Last week, the tensions exploded into street clashes in the southern city of Sidon, suggesting the scope of the fighting was widening.

Friday’s rocket slammed into a valley southeast of Beirut, causing a blast that reverberated across large parts of the city and surrounding mountains. After hours of searching, Lebanese soldiers found the rocket in Jamhour, a Christian area near the presidential palace, the Defense Ministry and the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahyeh, the military said in a statement. Two rocket launchers still holding one rocket also were found about 10 miles (15 kilometers) to the north of the city, also in a Christian town.

It was the second such attack in less than a month. Two rockets hit Dahyeh on May 26, wounding four, hours after the Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah vowed in a speech to help propel Assad to victory.

The gap widened when Hezbollah fighters were instrumental in a recent Syrian government victory as they helped pro-Assad forces regain control of the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border.

No one claimed responsibility the rocket attacks near Beirut, but rebels in Syria have vowed to retaliate and have sent rockets slamming into Hezbollah strongholds in northeastern Lebanon. Friday’s attack may also have been an attempt to drag Christian areas into the conflict, or perhaps was intended to send a message to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, a Christian.

Rebel groups have warned Suleiman to rein in Hezbollah. Under pressure, the president has been increasingly critical of Hezbollah involvement in Syria; on Thursday, he said the group was making a “mistake” and urged it to leave Syria.

The conflict has paralyzed Lebanese institutions. In downtown Beirut, Lebanese protesters continued a sit-in for a second day Friday near the parliament building to demand elections that originally were scheduled in June. Their chants on both evenings were drowned out by music blasting from a nearby rooftop nightclub, a sign of Beirut’s bon vivant lifestyle struggling to prevail.

Last month, the 128-member parliament extended its term by a year and a half, put off the balloting because of the deteriorating security conditions in the country. The demonstrators, who clashed with police Thursday, say the extension was unconstitutional. They have set up tents, blocking a side road in the city center.

Ali Jammoul, a 22-year-old activist and biology student taking part in the sit-in, said he fears the Shiite-Sunni sectarian hatreds will lead to a cycle of revenge killings even uglier than Lebanon’s civil war, which is believed to have killed 150,000 people.

“The Lebanese are hostage to external dictates. They are spectators waiting to see what is going to happen in the battle (for Syria),” he said, adding that Lebanon, with its weak government, was powerless to stay out.

Ashkar, the tourism official, said Beirut is typically packed in the summer with more than 100 percent capacity but now is at only 40 percent occupancy, most of them business travelers. Hezbollah’s public involvement in the war in Syria, he said, was a big blow to the industry that contributes 20 percent to the national income.

“This is really the worst season” since 1992 after the restoration of the tourism industry following the end of civil war, he said. For the first time in years, all of Lebanon’s hotels, with their 22,000 rooms, are partially closed or operating at reduced capacity, he added.

The tension has risen to a point where politicians on TV talk shows regularly throw invectives, and sometimes water glasses, at each other, or engage in a few fistfights. The violence prompted organizers of Lebanon’s famous Baalbek International Festival to announce plans to move the annual music show out of the ancient city with its Roman ruins because of its proximity to the Syrian border. Earlier this month, 18 rockets and mortar rounds fired from Syria hit the area, about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the Syrian frontier.

“The situation in Baalbek does not permit holding the festival, and we are now looking for a new venue,” an official with the festival said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to talk to reporters.

At least one participant, American soprano Renee Fleming, has canceled a planned concert at the festival, which is usually held under the towering columns of the Roman Temple of Jupiter, citing deteriorating security conditions. The festival is scheduled to begin in August.

Many Lebanese have despaired over the violence and the country’s future. “Half of my family left recently,” said Jammoul, who was among bottle-throwing protesters who clashed with police overnight. “My brother was my comrade in the streets. … I cried when I returned to the streets after a week and he wasn’t next to me, when I got beaten and he wasn’t near me,” he said.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.

Lebanon feeling heat from Syrian war

June 19, 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 19 (UPI) — Lebanese leaders need to work quickly to prevent sectarian conflict from erupting as the threat from Syria’s war moves closer, the speaker of Parliament said.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said Wednesday there were growing concerns about “sectarian strife” in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s political structure is divided along religious lines. Those divisions have been strained by the role Shiite movement Hezbollah has played in Syria’s civil war.

Hezbollah says it is fighting alongside pro-government forces in Syria to protect Lebanon from Syrian rebel groups, some of which are aligned with al-Qaida. Conflict has erupted, however, between pro- and anti-Syria elements near Lebanese-Syrian border.

Berri was quoted by the official National News Agency as calling “for doubling efforts to put an end to such attempts that threaten [to destabilize] the country.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said from Beirut the refugee crisis was compounding the issue for Lebanon. He said Lebanon is on pace to host more than 1 million Syrian refugees by the end of the year.

Guterres said the threat of spillover from the Syrian war “is now becoming a harsh reality” for countries like Lebanon.

“The international community must overcome its divisions and come together to stop the fighting if we want to prevent the flames of war from spreading across the Middle East,” he said in a statement.

Source: United Press International (UPI).


Assad forces build up for Aleppo offensive

June 19, 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 19 (UPI) — Forces loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad are reported tightening a cordon around the northern city of Aleppo, once the country’s commercial heart, in a major offensive against rebels who hold 60 percent of the city.

The regime, dominated by the minority Alawite sect, is massing tanks and artillery around the ancient city that was once part of the famed Silk Road to China, for the coming showdown military analysts say could determine the course of the civil war, now in its third year.

Assad’s troops were greatly buoyed by their capture of the strategic town of Qusair in central Syria’s Homs province June 5 after a three-week battle.

The town, which controls supply routes from neighboring Lebanon, had been held by rebel forces for more than a year, cutting off Damascus from the Alawite heartland in the northwest.

The fall of Qusair after fierce fighting opened the way for the regime to push into central Syria in a drive to recapture territory held by the rebels, including Homs, the provincial capital, and Aleppo, the big prize.

The regime needs to take control of Aleppo to undercut the rebellion that erupted March 15, 2011, and to reassert dominance of Syria’s main population centers.

A rebel defeat in Aleppo would mean a critical and possibly terminal setback for those seeking to end Assad’s rule.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision Thursday to arm rebel forces — although it’s not clear whether arms would include urgently needed anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles — could make a critical difference if the flow starts quickly.

The U.S. move overturned two years of reluctance by the West to get directly involved in the Syrian fighting, which threatens to spill over into neighboring states like Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

Indeed, it was the regime’s conquest of Qusair, largely due to fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah who spearheaded the assault, that convinced Obama U.S. aid should be increased from medicine and supplies to include arms.

Much will depend on how swiftly the Americans can start the arms flowing to the rebels through Jordan and Turkey.

Rebels report Syrian warplanes attacked their positions around the contested Kweiras airbase near Aleppo Tuesday amid heavy ground skirmishes.

The regime’s command of the air is a major problem for the rebels, and unless they get surface-to-air missiles they will face serious problems in the looming battle for Aleppo.

The air force has carried out a series of aerial resupply operations in the region in the last two months that rebels have been powerless to prevent.

But it’s not all clear sailing for the regime forces either.

They face major obstacles in the push on Aleppo from well-entrenched rebel blocking positions, which are being supplied with weapons through Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor, funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Loyalist forces have seized several villages in Homs province in recent days to consolidate their Qusair victory.

“Troop movements and bombardment patterns suggest the regime will likely stage attacks on rebels in Homs city proper and around the towns of Rastan and Talbiseh along the M5 highway, which leads from the Jordanian border in the south, through Damascus and all the way north to Aleppo,” the U.S.-based global security consulting firm Stratfor says.

Analysts say the regime’s assault on Aleppo may be deferred until there’s a significant loyalist push from the south as well.

“For all the regime’s announcements of an imminent victory in Aleppo, it is important to remember the very significant obstacles,” Statfor stressed. “Many of these are in fact the same that prevented the regime from ousting the rebels from the city in the summer of 2012.”

The rebels are dug in along much of the M5, which the regime would need to control to supply a major mechanized force.

Activists say rebels have already sent blocking forces to key supply routes in anticipation of a regime push northward from Hama province.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah will likely play a key role in the Aleppo offensive as a strike force, as it did in the battle of Qusair.

The Shiite movement, which has fought the Israelis for three decades, has proven to be a staunch ally of Assad’s Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Source: United Press International (UPI).