The Syrian army has pounded the rebel-held central town of Qusayr, killing at least 48 people in an apparent preparation for a ground assault, watchdog and activists said.
The attack on Sunday came a day after a rare interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was released, in which he said that his government was not using “fighters from outside of Syria, of other nationalities, and needs no support from any Arab or foreign state”.
Reports coming out of Qusayr, which is in Homs province, however said fighters of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement assisted the military.
Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut said that Assad would want control of Qusayr before the conference being planned for June to discuss a resolution to the conflict.
“There are several different strategic, diplomatic, and political factors that makes Qusayr particularly important,” he said.
“It is the heartland of the Alawite community, it has been used as a conduit for supplies, men and guns going in to Syria, and it is close to Lebanon.
“Assad wants to make sure he is in the strongest position possible if this conference takes place.”
Assad spoke to the Argentine newspaper Clarin and the Argentine state news agency Telam in a frank and lengthy interview in Damascus, released on Saturday, in which he insisted that he will not resign before elections in 2014.
He also denied that his government has used chemical weapons against the civilian population, and blamed foreign intervention for the crisis.
His comments come amid a rare joint push by the US and Russia to convene the peace conference in Geneva, which he cautiously welcomed.
“We have received the Russian-US approach well and we hope that there will be an international conference to help Syrians overcome the crisis,” Clarin quoted Assad as saying.
“We must be clear … there is confusion in the world over a political solution and terrorism.
“They think that a political conference will stop terrorism on the ground. This is unrealistic.”