The bombardment, which has sent thousands fleeing, comes on the heels of a major strategic victory in Qusayr for the regime and fighters from the Lebanese militant Shi’a group Hezbollah. Syria Deeply discusses the importance of these events — and of the city itself — with Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Syria Deeply: Why did the regime choose to close in now?
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Paul Salem: It was expected. What the regime and Hezbollah are trying to do is secure that corridor that links the capital [Damascus] to the coast. Qusayr was major step, and securing the outskirts of Homs is of great strategic importance for that alliance. So it’s not a surprise that after they finished with Qusayr, the next target would be Homs — if they can get both [cities] it would be a sustainable situation for the regime for an indefinite period for months or even years, even if they can’t get Aleppo, if they can secure that core. It’s important for Hezbollah because it’s a buffer against Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups who might use it to get into Lebanon. It’s part of clear strategy.
SD: How important is securing the main city along with the suburbs?
PS: There’s been fighting on and off around Homs for the longest time, because of the highways — there’s the ring road to get through to Damascus, but you have to get [through] outskirts of Homs. They don’t have to get the internal city, but they’re also now in the process of trying to show their strength. They won in Qusayr and their fighters are better trained, there’s more confidence and Hezbollah is helping. If they could take all of Homs, they’d be secure for the future. If they leave parts of it, then the opposition could launch attacks. If they get all of Homs, that would be, in the bigger picture, an achievement.
They already have the capital, they have Qusayr, they have the coast and they’d like to consolidate it further. It would be better if they could get all of Homs. But they’re in a strong position anyway at this point.
SD: Any read on the strategic situation on the ground?
PS: Clearly what’s significant is that the regime from the beginning had superior air power is now learning how to do this kind of [strategic ground] warfare, and when it chooses to concentrate its forces, it can [beat] the rebels. The regime will have to choose its battles.
SD: What will they do next, if they win in Homs?
PS: One possibility is that they could sit on their laurels and hold that, and it’s possible that the Russians and Iranians are OK or even supportive of this aggressive action up to a point. They might understand that taking Qusayr and Hezbollah might allow the regime and Hezbollah to have a sustainable situation that they could [maintain] for years. So after this we might not see major battles for major towns and cities, we could see a pause in a civil war that might go on for many years.
Alternatively, some have been saying that [the regime] will [go from] victory to victory and go from Homs to Aleppo. But they don’t have the capacity to stretch themselves thinner and thinner, and Hezbollah is not a large fighting force and doesn’t have the capacity to stray far from Lebanon.
SD: What exactly do you mean when you say it’s a ‘sustainable situation?’
PS: The regime is not going to win back the whole country. The opposition is not going to beat the regime for the foreseeable future. The situation is going to go on for many years. There’s no winner around the corner and no political settlement around the corner, either. They’re not going to create a political breakthrough at Geneva II. The future for Syria for the next two years is an area controlled by the regime, Hezbollah and others; and an area, less stable, controlled by the opposition [and groups that support the opposition.]
It’s sustainable in the sense that if the regime can keep the capital and coastline, they’ll have opened supply lines to the coast and they’ll have [under their control] the airport, the government ministries and the central bank. They’ll have access to Lebanon with Hezbollah’s support. So they’re not isolated, they’re not cornered. The oil areas would be a big loss, but they’d have the other important areas. It’s also politically sustainable in that they’d be credible, they’d have capital, they’d have support among Alawites, among some of the Sunnis. And the opposition would be in the ‘other’ areas. They can hold [this situation] for a long time.