Saturday, August 3, 2013

The fall of Homs in context

[Originally posted at NOW]

Rebels had not posed a real threat to the Syrian regime in Homs since the summer of 2012.

The reclaiming by the Syrian regime and allied forces of one of the last remaining rebel-held neighborhoods in the central city of Homs on Monday marked a second territorial defeat for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in two months, coming on the heels of the fall of the nearby town of Qusayr in June.

The Khalidiyeh neighborhood, which regime forces battered for weeks with air strikes and surface-to-surface missiles in coordination with Lebanese Hezbollah units, was a key link in the rebels’ chain between the Old City and the few remaining adjacent ‘liberated’ neighborhoods of the city once known to the opposition as the “capital of revolution,” or the “citadel of the terrorists” to the regime.

Its fall prompted speculation that regime forces would soon sweep the entire city, and then turn their attention northwards to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and now the only major one in which the rebels have a sizeable and comparatively secure presence. However, as of Saturday the fighting in Homs is continuing, and according to both activists on the ground and foreign analysts NOW spoke with, the regime is unlikely to be in a position to advance on Aleppo any time soon.

“In Homs, the opposition is still holding on in Jurat al-Shiyah, al-Qusur, al-Qarabis, Bab al-Dreb, Bab Turkman, Bab Houd, and Wadi al-Sayeh,” said Muhammad Radwan Raad, a Homs-based activist. He added, however, that “it is very unlikely that they will be able to keep hold of these neighborhoods because they only have AK-47s and RPGs.” Asked to estimate the number of rebels remaining in the city, Raad said it was in the hundreds, although “it is very hard to determine [because] many [have been] killed after the battles.”

As for what would likely follow the complete fall of Homs, Raad was in agreement with analysts NOW spoke to that it is the roads and countryside between Homs and Damascus, rather than Aleppo, that will be the next targets, although preparations for an eventual showdown in Aleppo will also be made wherever possible.

“The regime recently took control of the strategic village of Abel, on the Homs-Tartous highway. Now, it is seeking to take control of another road leading to Aleppo and a third one that links Homs with Damascus. Clashes are ongoing and once the regime takes control of these roads, it will move on to Homs’ northern fringes.”

There are several reasons the regime will likely avoid a substantial Aleppo offensive in the near term, according to Elizabeth O’Bagy, senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

“The interesting demographic balance in Homs actually favored the regime because you had so many Shiite – specifically Lebanese Shiite – and Alawite villages in the surrounding countryside,” O’Bagy told NOW. “You don’t see that in and around Aleppo so I think it’ll be much more difficult for the regime to find the right areas to launch operations from. This is exactly what we saw with some of the defeats that the opposition was able to inflict on Hezbollah.”

“I think after the regime won Qusayr it made the mistake of trying to advance onto Aleppo too quickly without consolidating its gains and so the recent offensive in Homs was actually their realization that they’d overplayed their hand. I think that for some time you’ll see them continuing to consolidate in and around Homs. They’re going to have to send significant reinforcements from Homs back to Damascus because of the rebel offensive going on there right now.”

Indeed, O’Bagy argues that recent rebel accomplishments in Damascus – such as the seizure of an anti-tank and ground-to-ground missiles depot Saturday – defy an increasingly current media narrative of the regime being close to military victory over the opposition.

“Momentum is clearly in favor of the regime right now, and there has been a shift in the tide of battles because of Hezbollah’s involvement [and] assistance from Iran and Russia, but what is often ignored is the fact that when the regime makes significant gains in one area they often lose territory in others. There is a major [rebel] offensive going on in Damascus right now. The opposition is able to enter neighborhoods that it has never been able to enter before. And they’ve also had some significant victories in and around Aleppo.”

Moreover, argues O’Bagy, many observers exaggerate the tangible significance of rebel defeat in Homs.

“The opposition hasn’t really had a strong presence in Homs since the summer of 2012. It’s important psychologically because it’s seen as an essential part of the resistance front but strategically the opposition hasn’t really been able to do much from Homs and they’ve never been able to effectively combat regime forces in and around that area.”

Christine Sleiman contributed reporting.

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