By Erika Solomon and Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT - Syrian rebels under siege in a town near the Lebanese border issued a desperate appeal on Thursday for reinforcements and medical supplies as government troops and Lebanese guerrillas pounded their defences.
Alongside a military offensive on Qusair and rebel-held Damascus suburbs, President Bashar al-Assad tried to drive home diplomatic advantage; he highlighted his foreign alliances in announcing the arrival of anti-aircraft missiles from Russia and militia from Lebanon's Hezbollah, and declared his willingness to attend a Geneva peace conference with his squabbling opponents.
An attempt to heal rifts between Islamist and liberal wings of the opposition by offering liberals more seats on the exile body that Arab and Western powers want to form a transitional government failed to mend fences with fighters inside Syria, who issued a new demand to have as many seats as the exile groups.
High hopes the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels had of sweeping Assad from power have been ground down on the battlefield and could suffer a further major setback if they lose Qusair, which guards their supply route from Lebanon and hinders government efforts to maintain contact between the capital Damascus and a coastline that is the stronghold of Assad's Alawite minority.
Warning that the town, once home to some 30,000 people, could be wiped off the map and hundreds of wounded risked dying without help, the rebel fighters inside Qusair issued an appeal on social media for allies to come to break the siege.
"The town is surrounded and there's no way to bring in medical aid," Malek Ammar, an opposition activist in the town, told Reuters by an Internet link, saying about 100 of the 700 wounded needed oxygen.
"What we need them to do," he said of other rebel units, "is come to the outskirts of the city and attack the checkpoints so we can get routes in and out of the city."
In a statement, the rebel commanders warned of dire consequences if help fails to arrive for men who have been fighting house to house for over a week against a force armed with tanks and rocket-launchers and spearheaded by Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah, seasoned in wars against Israel:
"If all rebel fronts do not move to stop this crime being led by Hezbollah and Assad's traitorous army of dogs ... we will soon be saying that there was once a city called Qusair."
Shells were landing by the minute and the attackers seemed to be advancing more quickly after seizing a nearby air base.
Elsewhere, rebels blockaded in eastern suburbs of Damascus known as eastern Ghouta appealed for help on Facebook, saying Assad's forces were "preparing to commit more massacres".
They pointedly said they held not just fellow guerrilla units responsible for coming to their aid but also the Syrian National Coalition, whose exile members have spent a week arguing in Istanbul over how to present a common front at peace talks Washington and Moscow are trying to arrange in Geneva.
Despite an offer by the Sunni Islamists who dominate the Coalition at present to give a liberal bloc more seats, the haggling continues, to the frustration of Turkey, Gulf Arab states and Western diplomats who have hoped that the body can use the peace conference to assume governing responsibilities.
Inside Syria, the body which groups very diverse fighting units issued its own response, demanding that it be granted half the seats in the Coalition's governing body - a reflection of persistent mistrust between fighters and exiles.
Russia, an ally of Damascus since the Cold War days when Assad's late father was in power, scoffed at the opposition's demands for the president to agree to step aside as a condition for them attending the talks, for which Russian, U.S. and U.N. officials will hold a planning meeting next Wednesday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Coalition seemed to be "doing everything they can to prevent a political process from starting ... and achieve military intervention".
"We consider such approaches unacceptable," he said, referring to rebel pleas for Western weapons which persuaded Britain and France this week to end an EU arms embargo.
Rivalry between Russia and Western powers has deadlocked previous international efforts to end the fighting but fears that the conflict was spreading - notably with Israel bombing Syria, Iranian-backed Hezbollah declaring it would fight for Assad and reports of troops using chemical weapons - prompted Washington and Moscow to launch a joint call for a conference.
In a television interview not yet broadcast but quoted by a Lebanese newspaper, Assad said he planned to go to the "Geneva 2" meeting but was unconvinced of a fruitful outcome and pledged to continue fighting the two-year-old uprising, in which more than 80,000 Syrians have been killed.
Underlining the international resources he can call on, despite Western sanctions, he said Syria had received a first shipment of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia under a deal signed before the conflict and which has troubled Israel.
A source close to Russia's defence ministry said, however, that the "hardware itself" had yet to be delivered to Syria, where Moscow has a Mediterranean naval base. But, the source added, "certain parts of the contract may have been fulfilled".
Assad's access to superior weaponry, also supplied by his ally Iran, has kept the rebels in check. Western powers have been reluctant to arm them because of concerns that weapons would end up with anti-Western Islamists and used against them.
(For an interactive timeline on Syria, please click on
(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Istanbul and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by David Stamp)