Yesterday, Syrian state media reported that the Syrian army had won and “restored security and stability to the neighborhood.” We decode the situation with Elizabeth O’Bagy of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
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Syria Deeply: What’s the current state of the battle for Khaldiyeh?
Elizabeth O’Bagy: This is based on assessments with commanders in Homs: they said that the regime launched an offensive into the district, that they’re right now fighting hand to hand with the opposition, but that it’s not [yet] been taken over [by the regime]. It’s been under siege, it’s surrounded, they’re clashing, but the regime hasn’t cleared it.
Given the way that the regime has locked down Homs, it would be very difficult to send in [FSA] reinforcements in any shape or form. So I think the opposition will eventually lose it, if the regime commits enough of its forces and resources. They will be able to disentrench the opposition, and the opposition will either be forced to withdraw or fight to the death.
SD: Why is this area so critical to who “wins” the war?
EO: There are two dual reasons. The first is because it’s strategically important. It’s a primary hub that links the coastal area to central Syria and especially to Damascus, and it’s the corridor from which the regime moves things from the coast to Damascus. It’s a critical line of communication for the regime.
Secondly, for the opposition, it’s of huge psychological importance. Even though the protests originally started in Deraa, Homs is seen as the central active resistance hub. If you look back, a lot of the key turning points and battlefronts of the uprising all took place in Homs. It’s seen as the main place where the fight against the regime has taken place, and a critical node as the resistance front.
To be frank, the opposition doesn’t actually hold enough territory inside of Homs to make it strategically important [for them]. If they withdraw it wouldn’t be the end [of the war], but psychologically it means a lot for their morale — the idea that they would have lost the resistance front.
The reason why it’s become so critical is that back in February and March 2012, when a regime offensive was going on in Homs, the opposition withdrew from all areas in the city except a few. They left Ba Amr [and other ‘important’ suburbs]. They maintained a presence in the Old City and in Khaldiyeh. So this one key neighborhood has been the central opposition stronghold in the city, and it’s been the place where the opposition has now been entrenched for more than a year. It’s the one place in Homs that has always been under opposition control.
SD: Khaldiyeh was one of a few neighborhoods in Homs to escape regime capture. Why?
EO: If you look at the layout of the city, it’s a highly defensible position. They were able to entrench themselves in a way where it wasn’t worth [the resources that would be needed] for the regime to drive them out. The government knew it would suffer heavy casualties. It was more feasible to just put up a barricade around the neighborhood. It’s defensible because of the way the quarters are arranged in Homs city; you have district boundaries and lines drawn in a way that’s made it where this neighborhood is in an area that provides an easy retreat to the countryside but also access to the city center.
SD: How high are the casualties in Homs?
EO: Where you really find the significant death toll is in the civilian population, especially because the regime is now using humanitarian aid as leverage in a really concerted effort inside Homs city to starve out the civilian populations and force opposition leaders to negotiate with regime forces. In regards to the armed opposition and regime casualties, the numbers are not unlike other battles.
SD: What will be the effect if the regime pulls off a victory?
EO: I think it will have a very significant psychological impact on the opposition, but truth be told, the opposition hasn’t really been effective in Homs for quite some time. They don’t have a strong enough position in Homs to really make it count [as a strategic base, even if they win it]. As the regime has had to consolidate its resources in and out of Homs, the opposition has been able to push into other fronts — there’s a major rebel offensive going on in Damascus right now — to the degree they’ve been able to overrun some critical bases in northern Aleppo.