The collapse of rebel resistance in Qusayr near the Lebanese border on June 5th may not be the decisive battle of the Syrian civil war that supporters of Bashar Assad are claiming, but there is no denying its significance. The signs are growing that the regime has got a fresh lease of life by developing new offensive capabilities with its Iranian and Hizbullah allies. It may also be setting strategic objectives that it is increasingly able to achieve.
For the West, which has long assumed that however bloody and vile the conflict, there was little prospect of Mr Assad and his backers (Russia as well as Iran) prevailing, the fall of Qusayr should be a belated wake-up call. If it is not heeded, Qusayr could indeed be a turning-point.
In the first place, this was not one of those back-and-forth skirmishes that have characterised many of the clashes between armed groups on both sides. Qusayr and the area around it is of real strategic importance. It watches over the southern route through Homs province to the coast and to the regime’s Alawite heartland. It has been a rebel logistics hub since falling to contingents of the Free Syrian Army last summer, enabling light weapons to flow through Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and through another corridor from Tripoli, on Lebanon’s northern coast. Its control by the rebels made it much harder for the regime to relieve the still fiercely contested nearby city of Homs, Syria’s third-biggest, which commands the road from Damascus in the south to Tartus and Latakia on the coast.
Given the importance of its location, the regime’s victory in Qusayr will give it both a psychological and a political boost, while hurting the rebels’ morale. Both sides saw Qusayr as a battle that had to be won. It began in earnest nearly three weeks ago with an aerial and artillery assault on the town’s 30,000 inhabitants, showing that Mr Assad’s forces not only have overwhelming firepower but the command and control needed for a coherent and fairly complex military operation.
After softening up the town with a prolonged bombardment, Mr Assad’s ground forces, supported by armour, began to seize ground, pushing rebel outposts into a compressed killing zone. Surface-to-surface missiles and frequent air strikes hit rebel shelters at the rear, preventing reinforcements or critical supplies, including medicine, from getting through. Out of a rebel force of 1,800 or so, at least 300 are thought to have been killed.
The new-found efficiency of Mr Assad’s men may owe a lot to his Iranian advisers. Armoured units of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and other regular troops fought alongside Syria’s recently formed National Defence Force, welded together from so-called “popular committees” of pro-regime paramilitary shabiha and trained by Iran’s elite Quds Force. As well as about 6,000 regime soldiers, some 2,000 fighters from Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia party-cum-militia that is sponsored by Iran, were thrown into the battle.
For all the West’s attempts to create diplomatic momentum before the planned peace conference in Geneva, incentives for Mr Assad to compromise may diminish thanks to events on the battlefield. After the fall of Qusayr he may believe still more strongly that he can hold out and perhaps even vanquish the revolt. State media hailed the fall of the town as the first step in the reconquest of rebel-held territory. “The solution is the army, not dialogue,” said Dareen Nusra, a housewife in Damascus.
The rebels desperately need to start getting serious military support from the West in the form of precision modern weapons, such as portable anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank guided weapons. Even they may not be enough unless accompanied by a no-fly zone in the north, where they could draw breath, gather strength and forge themselves into a more effective force with the help of Western military trainers. In their absence, Mr Assad, once widely deemed to be doomed, could survive for quite a time yet.