Is Fall of Homs a turning point in Regime’s Quest to Retake Syria?

(By Juan Cole)

The Governor of Homs Province, Talal al-Barazi said Wednesday that 80 percent of the rebel fighters in that city have now been evacuated. It is expected that the rest will leave on Thursday.

Around a thousand fighters had been holed up in the old city of Homs and have now left, with 300 or so persons staying behind.

The regime’s retaking of Homs is not just an ordinary to and fro in a brutal, grinding civil war. It is a hands-down strategic victory for the ruling Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad. Homs is an industrial city of some 700,000 inhabitants, the third largest in Syria (a country of 22 million). It has a Sunni majority but a very large Christian community (at one point, at least, they were 1/3 of the inhabitants), along with minorities like Alawis. But neither size nor make-up explain its importance. Geography does.

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Damascus in the southwest of Syria needs resupply of staples, ammunition and weaponry. Some of that is brought in by air. More is brought overland by trucks from the port of Latakia in the northwest on the Mediterranean. The trucking route from Latakia to Damascus goes through . . . Homs. Another supply route runs from Tripoli in Lebanon through Hizbullah-held Hermel in the Bekaa Valley to Homs and then south to Damascus.

The rebel strategy last year this time was to take Homs (they held part of the city) and its hinterland, towns like al-Qusayr. The rebels, mainly Sunni Arabs and increasingly leaning toward extremist groups, hoped to use their dominance of Homs to cut Damascus off from both Latakia and from the Lebanese ports. At the same time, they intended to take the airports, including small military ones, so as to prevent resupply by air from Russia and Iran. Damascus would be under siege and gradually would weaken and ultimately surrender.

The rebel plan was defeated by several regime responses. The regime forces deployed massive and indiscriminate force on Homs, including aerial bombing raids. The rebel lack of an air force or anti-aircraft batteries was fatal. The regime also brought in strategic advisers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on how to recover Homs. Iran also asked the Hizbullah party-militia in Lebanon to intervene. In spring-summer of 2013, Hizbullah took Qusayr near Homs and helped in the assault on Homs itself. The Sunni rebel loss of Qusayr to a Lebanese Shiite militia was the first big setback to the rebel forces for some time. Until that point, they had gradually expanded the territory they held every month. In the past year, that rebel-held territory has shrunk somewhat. More important than the extent of the territory lost to the regime, however, is its strategic character.

There is talk of the regime trying to take the territory north of Homs, which would put the rebels in the north under siege.

But as I told Syrian oppositionists in 2012, it is possible that Bashar al-Assad will achieve something similar to what happened in Algeria, where the army won a civil war with the Muslim fundamentalists. The opposition’s decision to militarize was a serious error.

The Baath regime is by now guilty of war crimes and probably crimes against humanity. It would be very bad if it wins the civil war and its official receive impunity. On the other hand, the best fighters among the rebels, and the ones who control 70% of liberated territory, are increasingly Sunni extremists with ties to al-Qaeda. You wouldn’t want that crew to sweep into Damascus and take it over. Syria is caught between two unpalatable alternatives.

Shiite Iran likely views that retaking of Homs as a severe blow to al-Qaeda affiliates who hate and have massacred Shiites. One of these groups, the Islamic State of iraq and the Levant, is also fighting Shiite troops in Iraq.

In any case, no territory held by the rebels in the north or the far south of the country can cause Damascus to fall. Keeping Homs and taking the territory between it and the capital, putting the latter under siege, could have caused it to fall eventually. That plan has decisively failed.

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Related video:

Reuters: “Rebels evacuated from Homs, cradle of Syrian uprising”

12 Responses

  1. In Syria majority of those on both sides that are fighting and dying are Sunnis but if you are going to write about sectarian fighting and massacres, please do a piece on Pakistan, where one grope exclusively does the terrorizing and killing and the other exclusively does the dying and Bering traumatized and explain the indifference of each sects head honchos or the whole world for that matter.

  2. Gee, one can hope that arming the “moderates” with more exotic and profitable weapons from the Imperial arsenal, and recognizing them “diplomatically,” will prove to be a “winning strategy.” Maybe the Mods just need more Interoperability with the Imperial Battjespace… And the goal, again, is…? Better life for Ordinary People everywhere? Huh. Uhuh.

  3. The no. 1 reason Bashar is still around is shrewd politics. He was able to rally the government’s supporters, and those supporters stuck by him even when things were going badly.

    An example of shrewd politics can be seen in the generous terms granted to the defeated rebels at Homs. They were accorded the old-fashioned “honours of war,” i.e. they left bearing their personal weapons.

    After all, if the government side is ever going to favourably conclude the civil war, at some point they will have to obtain the willing compliance of many who once bore arms against it. It was therefore wise on the part of the Syrian government not to seek the complete elimination or humiliation of the rebel troops at Homs.

    Another thing: it is interesting to wonder many leaders in the world could be engaged in a serious war for several years while exhibiting as few false heroics and as little melodrama as Bashar?

    BTW a major contrast between Algeria and Syria is that the rebels in Algeria received no significant aid from outside, while the Algerian government suffered from no sanctions of any kind.

  4. Dear Professor Cole

    “You wouldn’t want that crew to sweep into Damascus and take it over. Syria is caught between two unpalatable alternatives.”

    For me, the only way to decide between the alternatives is to ask “Who keeps my friends safe?” As my friends are mainly Christian, Ismaeli and Alawite this makes the choice simple.

    If this puts me on the other side of the fence from the US and UK government, “c’est la vie”

  5. Hezbollah appears to be a key to the recent military successes of the Assad regime. They played an important role in the recent retaking of Homs.

    The lack of coherent foreign policy by the Obama administration has damaged the cause of the Free Syrian Army(FSA). There has been no cogent proof that the Syrian government has divested itself of its chemical weapons program in the timetable promised. The FSA has received anti-tank missiles, but not needed surface-to-air missiles; the rebels have been sustaining heavy aerial bombardment in Aleppo and elsewhere.

    The death toll among Syrians from the civil war is well over 140,000 and continues to mount. There is no international leadership that has stepped in to assist in the peace process since the abysmal failures of the Geneva II conference.

      • BTW, Professor Cole, I read yesterday? a couple of days ago? – whatever – in a NYT editorial that updated in a survey all of President Obama’s foreign policy decisions since he became president that the percentage of destroyed poisonous gas stocks is 90%. And we all know the NYT is never wrong having been decreed long ago the liberal version of papal infallibility.
        But all kidding aside, whichever percentage it actually is, it was accomplished without dropping one bomb or firing off one cruise missile and of course killing innocent civilians.

    • I’d have to say it sure looks to me like the Obama administration has a very coherent foreign policy: maximize distress, add confusion, foment dissension, overthrow any elected government, foster profitable arms sales as one element of the other elements, keep the sneaky-petes busy in the underbrush, lay a thick layer of military-state-security “Interoperability” slime over the whole, and keep the carboniferous combustibles flowing. And the dollar as the reserve currency, until enough post-trans-supranational corporate entities have settled on how to score a big one by demolishing the dollar and what is left of their “American” launch pad. All on the backs of the ordinary people who once again are funding their own immolation.

      And since when has injecting more and more weapons, particularly “dual use” toys like guided antitank and anti-aircraft missiles whether MANPAD or Russia’s Best Air Defence Systemme, into a chaos of anomie and identity conflict ever had a prayer in Hell of Making Things Better for those ordinary people? However many angels can be induced, by the fluttering of Position Papers and Briefing Documents and Doctrines and Thinktankery and suchlike, to dance on the pinheads of the people who talk up this or that strategy or policy, like favoring something called the “Free Syrian Army” which if one looks at all closely, can only be called “maybe not as bad as the other dudes, possibly, at the moment.”

      What “peace process?” Isn’t that phrase dead on arrival? Conflicts like this eventually die of exhaustion, but only after the outside players move on. What is the aim of the Game? An FSA “victory?” By what possible means, and with what possible outcomes? What is “won” in this situation, however it turns out, where the rulers and fatass generals of many nations, and the profiteers and contractors stuck to them like chewing gum under the bus station bench, are “free to pursue their National Interest” whatever the hell that means? It’s still pretty hard to refute some old wisdom: “War is nothing but a racket.” You don’t build legitimacy, the kind that undergirds stability and decency, that way. At least as far as I can see, with my cataract-impaired, skeptical vision.

      • “What ‘peace process?’ Isn’t that phrase dead on arrival?”

        Absolutely. Nobody had any real faith that Geneva II was going to accomplish anything significant. The Department of State pushed the Syrian National Coalition to go along with that program and had leverage due to the diplomatic and military support provided by the U.S. to the FSA.

        The Ankara meeting between Western diplomats and the newly-minted “Islamic Front” umbrella rebel coalition revealed that this organization did not even want any foreign aid from those interests and preferred the continued funding and support of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

        “….profiteers and contractors stuck to them like chewing gum under the bus station bench…….”

        It would indeed be interesting to find out who is raking in the “big bucks” from this ongoing carnage. Memories of Brown & Root dredging Cam Ranh Bay or Dow Chemical manufacturing bulk quantities of Agent Orange and napalm for shipment to Vietnam or the more recent megabucks “earned” by Blackwater in Iraq have always reminded me that conflicts like these are expensive and there are a select few who enrich themselves immeasurably as “merchants of death”.

        • For a little context:

          It ain’t just the construction contractors, though that massive pile of Embasssssy concrete in Baghdad, and Baghram, and all the “bases” with McDonald’s and swimming pools and other touches of “home” all over the planet, are a few vaguely visible evidences. Cam Ranh Bay, the port and the air base, link to en.wikipedia.org, was a billion-dollar gift to the Rooskies in the post-war period, but hey, “we” might recoup some of that! link to nationalinterest.org, with billions more needed to bring it to current standards, of course! And look at CRB and Da Nang and all our other big airports and installations like Phu Bai where I was stationed for a while, in Google Earth, pics then and now, to see what a huge wealth transfer to “the enemy” (and I include the Commies and “our” contractors in that category) was made.

          It’s $37 buillion (oops!) and counting for the Littoral Combat Ships that effing “Doctrine” says are “the future of Imperial power projection,” that Oops! can’t take a punch, or throw one either unless you re-define the specs to say what “successful program” means: link to wired.com and lots more articles. And the F-22 and F-35? The V-22? The XM-25 “game-changer?” The many rolling iterations, at a billion or so a pop, of new’n’better combat uniforms and web gear? link to thedailybeast.com And of course the M-113 aluminum-armored armored personnel carrier proved vulnerable to cheap RPG and armor piercing fire that killed vehicle and crew, so we had to have the many expensive iterations of the ”
          Bradley Fighting Vehicle, with aluminum armor up-armored until it was another kind of vehicle altogether: link to strategypage.com, the usual effing tail-chase of a procurement in search of a mission.

          Forget about KBR “contractors” idiotically mis-wiring GI’s showers so that the GIs get electrocuted, link to cnn.com, it’s Immense, it’s Enormous, it’s a frikkin’ Jobs Program that can’t even start to be audited, link to businessinsider.com and link to theverge.com, and a way for generals to live fat, while on “active duty” and after. link to washingtonpost.com We got Raytheon lobbyists and even Saint Kerry of Massachusetts, Post-National Raytheon Corp’s nominal home, pushing the Pentagram and Obama’s cadre to shoot off a bunch of Tomahawks at “carefully selected targets” in Syria, just to turn over some inventory and pull in a few hundred million more Worker Bucks. link to public-accountability.org

          We get all exercised about GM ignition switches that have killed maybe a couple of dozen of us, thanks to greed and corporate unconcern, and not about faux “wars” that kill hundreds of times that in US GI “Consumers” and millions of Others, “wars” that hide behind the mythology of Call of Duty and that are just huge commercial Milo Minderbinder Enterprises scams transferring enormous ordinary-people wealth, between $600 billion and $1.2 trillion a year in the US depending on who you ask, about a quarter of the planet’s wealth overall, to the “military,” to a particular set of the Very Few. link to shmoop.com

          And it doesn’t seem to matter that all that enormous complexity and “power” can’t even crush a bunch of tribesmen in far off places, in fact the Brass sort of acknowledge that they can’t actually “win” a 4th generation asymmetric war, even when they cheat: link to fabiusmaximus.com The future these assh__es promise us in nothing but more of the same, Orwell’s (Un)SecurityState and “forever war.” But they’ve nailed down how they will dominate and guide and control EVERYTHING, in the name of “responding to the threat of climate change,” link to fas.org Now we got the CIA “retrograding” from Notagainistan before the field military forces, from the “graveyard of empires:” link to thedailybeast.com, after saying just the other thing: link to washingtonpost.com Stupidity squared, cubed, to the infinity power, but the Games! the Wealth transferred! the best year yet for the opium crop!

          Sneer at Gen. Smedley Butler all one wants — he saw it and said it, 80 years ago: “War is nothing but a racket.” From my generation, the bit of sardonic wisdom was “War is GOOD BUSINESS — Invest YOUR Son!” And the Grownups are supposedly in charge. Bunch of effing child abusers and pedophiles, maybe… It’s too big, too much, unstoppable… link to youtube.com

          This is the way cancers operate, especially the metastatic and malignant ones, eating the body’s resources, tricking it into growing huge new arteries to feed lifeblood directly to the tumor, hiding from the increasingly crippled immune system, behind a fake image of “healthy tissue.”

          What’s that portend for the rest of us, in the ol’ Body Politic? Got your Obamacare Card ready?

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