Bolstered by victory in Qusair, Assad forces turn sights on Homs, Aleppo

Bolstered by convincing win in strategic Qusair, loyalist forces move to take back heartland

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 June, 2013, 3:00am


With fresh momentum from the capture of a strategic town in western Syria, President Bashar al-Assad's forces have turned their sights to driving rebel fighters from the country's densely populated heartland, including the cities of Homs and Aleppo.

The latest battlefield success, due in large part to Lebanese Hezbollah fighters' increasing role and the West's continued reluctance to arm the rebels, raises the possibility that Assad can cling to power for years, even if he will not be able to recapture all of the country.

Government troops pressed ahead on Thursday with an aggressive military offensive in Homs province, seizing control of the village of Dabaa just north of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon. Hundreds of rebel fighters who had been entrenched in Qusair for more than a year fled on Wednesday after a punishing three-week assault, retreating to surrounding areas.

The United Nations yesterday launched a record US$5.2-billion aid appeal for Syria. It also scrambled to find replacement troops for its peacekeeping mission on the Golan Heights after heavy fighting between regime forces and rebels near its headquarters on Thursday prompted Austria to announce it was pulling out.

The sum sought by the UN by far overshadows the US$2.2 billion that it appealed for in 2003 to help cope with the crisis sparked by the war in Iraq.

But UN officials said the number of people in need inside Syria and in neighbouring countries was set to spiral as the conflict drags on for a third year. The UN said a total of US$3.8 billion was needed to help Syrian refugees who have spilled across the country's borders to escape fighting in their homeland. The figure for operations inside Syria is US$1.4 billion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed that Russian peacekeepers replace the departing Austrian troops.

The regime triumph in Qusair, a key crossroads town of supply lines between Damascus and western and northern Syria, showcased the potentially game-changing role of Hezbollah in Syria's civil war and was openly celebrated in the militant group's strongholds in Lebanon and in Damascus.

Syrian state-run media portrayed Qusair's fall as a turning point in the more than two-year civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people.

In reality, though, it is unlikely that Assad will be able to roll back rebel gains across the country. Dozens of rebel brigades have taken unquestioned control of huge swathes of territory in the north and east, setting up local councils and Islamic courts to administer affairs in towns and villages. Kurds have all but carved out their own separate existence in the country's northeast.

At best, Assad will continue to preside over a divided country, with militias ruling over ethnic fiefdoms. A violent insurgency is likely to continue even in areas where the regime regains control.

But if the regime continues to enjoy the strong backing of allies Hezbollah, Russia and Iran, Assad could try to reassert himself in much of Syria, even if he can not win back all the country.

Josef Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said he believed Assad was not aiming for outright victory over the rebels in all of Syria. "The objective is survival in what they [regime loyalists] consider the strategically important parts of Syria," he said.

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse