In a ‘Strategic Victory’, as some analysts called it, the Syrian army, in its counter offensive against the rebels, overtook Qusayr – a key town bordering Lebanon on Wednesday.
According to a statement issued by the General Command of Syrian forces to SANA, the tactical success was attributed to “a series of operations” to cleanse ‘terrorists” ‘.
But this failure did not hamper the spirit of the dissidents. Homs Revolution News, associated with the opposition, stated, “Yes, dear brethren, this is a battle that we lost, but the war is not over yet.”
The dynamics of the conflict have certainly changed with Qusayr’s defeat. The authoritarian Assad’s regime, initially notorious for its political measures, now reeks of sectarian bias.
There is no doubt that the strategic calculus is tilting in Assad’s favor. The regrouping of the Syrian army, after absorbing the fresh cadres of Hezbollah militants – a Shiite Lebanese organization, has significantly bolstered the regime’s strength and it has been on an offensive spree since. “If we press pause on where we are today, it is clear that the insurgency does not pose an existential threat to the regime,” acknowledged Charles Lister of the London-based IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.
Consequently, the ramifications that are to follow, after the Syrian forces laid siege to gain control on Qusayr, have the potential to damage political and diplomatic ties internationally as well as fuel inter-sectarian rivalry within the Muslim community.
Significance of Qusayr
Qusayr is a key town that lies near the national motorway connecting the capital city Damascus with Aleppo, the Alawite stronghold.
The proximity near the border ensured continued sustenance for the rebels, as supplies and ammunitions flowed through the porous border, from across the Lebanese valley of Beka’a and the port of Tripoli. The logistic support supply line, which was vital for the containment of Assad’s army in the western region, has now been sealed off by the incursion of Syrian forces.
The tactical significance of Qusayr will not be lost on Assad’s forces, as now, there are grave chances of attacks being stepped up on the rebels’ bastion in Homs. Situated between Hama, where the Syrian forces are thickly garrisoned, and Qusayr on the west, it is indicative that Homs will be the next target of the Ba’athist regime.
In the wake of Qusayr’s fall, there are chances of Syria’s conflict sliding into an open-ended, regional, sectarian crisis.
Hezbollah’s overt involvement and its support for Assad has ignited the sectarian indignation among the masses all over the Middle East. The remobilization of the Shia militias in Iraq, following Hassan Nasrullah’s support call for the Syrian army, has given a fresh impetus to the escalating sectarian violence. A sharp spike in casualties has been observed in May 2013, in greater numbers than the preceding month, which was termed as the deadliest by the United Nations.
Lebanon has already started feeling the aftershocks of Hezbollah’s involvement. In a first major clash in the port city of Tripoli since 2008, Syrian sympathizers and Hezbollah supporters openly attacked each other.
General Salam Idriss of the Free Syrian Army – the main umbrella group of Syrian rebels, has avowed to open a new front within the Lebanese border.
“Hezbollah fighters are invading Syrian territory. And when they continue to do that and the Lebanese authorities don’t take any action to stop them coming to Syria, I think we are allowed to fight Hezbollah fighters inside [Lebanese] territory,” the defiant Idriss told the BBC correspondent.
Credible sources from the battlefront have reported that over 20 missiles, fired by the Free Syrian Army, damaged Hezbollah headquarters in the Ba’labakk area of Lebanon.
There are elections scheduled in Lebanon in mid-June. Due to the internal chaos perpetuated by the Syrian atmosphere, chances are that the elections will be postponed. Continued involvement of Hezbollah and other Shiite belligerent groups across the border might invoke the Salafist sentiments. A sectarian conflict within Lebanon and a weakened Hezbollah can make it easier for Israel to slide into Lebanon.
Initially, the rebels’ advances posed a bleak scenario for the Syrian government, but after the backing of the Iranian backed militias, the embattled Assad forces managed to retake key areas. The enormous imbalance of power, that resulted due to impoverished rebels supply lines and bolstering cadres of the Syrian army, has created a dangerous scenario for the opposition.
Michael Young, an observer of Middle East politics, also voiced the same concern, “This is a dire time for the Syrian opposition. We could be at a turning point in the war against the Assad regime.”
Analysts are of the view that Assad’s military gains, with the help of Russo-Iranian allies, are meant to consolidate his power before the Geneva conference in July. If the Syrian force manages to wrangle out most of the land from the rebels’ grip, Assad will be in a better position to bargain, much for the satisfaction of Russia and the embarrassment of the United States.
Aram Nerguizian, Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “Not only does the outcome not favor the opposition, it empowers the regime.”
The lack of certainty in the West – due to clouded apprehensions regarding the political outcome of any action – for the resolution of the Syrian conflict, is being felt as disconcerting by many global stake-holders. According to verified estimates, death toll figures now stand at 94,786, while the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reports that 4.25 million people are internally displaced.
Those who want to see Assad bring ousted think that the United Nations, instead of launching humanitarian calls, should focus on alleviating the crisis, and bringing the international stakeholders on the table with immediate effect, else the Syrian crisis will mar all future peace prospects in the Middle East.