BEIRUT: The Syrian government onslaught on Qusair is the first step in a major new regime strategy to secure the west of the country from Damascus to the Alawite heartland, analysts told The Daily Star.
Aided by a Hezbollah force, government troops last Sunday stormed the geographically important town, which has been in opposition hands since February 2012.
Warplanes battered rebel positions from the air while soldiers took up sniper positions inside the town, pushing their way through rebel lines from its southern and eastern entrances – in what senior defense fellow at the Washington Institute Jeffrey White described as “the most intense fighting since Aleppo last summer.”
Opposition activist Hadi Abdullah, from Qusair, said rebels repelled a government advance in the town’s outskirts Thursday while George Sabra, the acting head of the National Coalition, urged fighters to “rush to the rescue” of the town.
However, analysts say that due to their superior military capacity and manpower, it is likely President Bashar Assad’s troops will overrun Qusair.
“If the regime decides that it must have Qusair and cannot accept defeat there, they will put in enough to be able to take it,” White said.
“There comes a point where [the rebels] motivations’ have to face the realities and the scale of the regime offensive. However resilient the rebel fighters might be, at the end of the day the city is encircled. There is not going to be cavalry coming over the horizon to save them,” added Aram Nerguizian, Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
These are forces with “fundamentally different capabilities ... The rebels just don’t have the kind of resources that the regime does. So the odds are stacked against them,” Nerguizian said.
The decision to commit significant forces to retaking Qusair marks the beginning of a new, more realistic strategy by the regime to hold all territory west of the Orontes River. Assad’s government views the uprising as an insurgency by terrorists, and has so far been trying a tactically ad hoc approach to quash the rebellion, spreading their resources too thin across the vast country as a result.
“For the better part of two years, you had a regime that was trying to fight everywhere using all of the blunt tactics that don’t work in terms of shaping public opinion and shaping the battle,” Nerguizian said. “But they have learned new tactics, and made a lot of the right choices in terms of how to fight a sectarian civil war.
“The regime is on the offensive. They are much more motivated now that they have a new sense of what their objectives are, and are focusing on specific targets as opposed to trying to win everywhere and as a result lose everywhere,” he added.
“They know they need to focus on holding key nodes of power that includes demographic centers, key defense installations, key geographies – and by default that includes Qusair.”
The town is considered integral because it is a logistics hub for rebels. Its loss would sever their weapons supply-lines from Lebanon and leave their hard-won territory in Homs and Damascus province isolated and vulnerable to the so-called ‘domino effect.’
Moreover, the regime also has a significant sectarian motivation to focus on Qusair. “The regime has staked its offensive on retaking Qusair because it is an important smuggling route, but [even] more so because it is in the heart of the region linking Hezbollah to the Alawite mountains and Damascus to Homs and the Alawite heartlands,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.
By focusing on this corridor, the regime has begun to implement another new strategy: the battle for the highways. Assad has started to concentrate on vital road networks, arteries that link the capital to the strip of land where his sect dominates, as well as key bases within rebel terrain.
Energy has been focused on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, the spine of the country, where control of the road is being fiercely fought over in the city of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province. Although the government has its eye firmly on its base in western Syria, the road “allows the regime to keep supplies moving to bases with the rebel’s axis in parts of Idlib and Aleppo province,” said White.
The battle for Qusair is part of this logic, with the regime strategizing that if the country splinters and the western region breaks off – as is feared by those who view the war in an increasingly sectarian light – the Alawites will still have a route to the commercial and political centers in Damascus.
Any decisive victory in Qusair will be largely down to the role played by Hezbollah’s dedicated and skillful fighters. Details on the numbers embedded in the town are scant, but White said it was probable there are “several thousand,” with at least 49 killed according to activists.
The massive regime push for the border corridor comes as the government “tries to exploit new assistance from Hezbollah ... to impress on the world that it will not be easily defeated,” Landis said.
The Shiite-majority group has a wealth of battlefield experience in both asymmetrical and urban fighting, repelling Israeli forces from South Lebanon in 2000 – in what was considered a huge moral and strategic victory for the group.
“Hezbollah have been really decisive in Qusair. For some time the regime has lacked organization, morale, offensive capabilities, and units that were willing to attack and take causalities – Hezbollah gives them all that,” said White.
Overtaking Qusair would also have wider geopolitical advantages for the regime. The U.S. and Russia are trying to drum up support from Damascus, the opposition and international actors for a peace conference next month designed to find a negotiated resolution to Syria’s crisis. If the battle for Qusair swings in the government’s favor, Assad will be able to translate these military gains into a stronger negotiating position.
“If they are able to hold Qusair, the regime will be able to say this huge swath of terrain from Damascus, and possibly down to Deraa, all the way up to Zabandi, parts of Homs to Latakia and Tartous is essentially under their control. This geographic continuity puts them a much better position for any potential negotiations at Geneva 2,” Nerguizian said.