After Qusair, Syrian army sets sights on heartland

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — With fresh momentum from the capture of a strategic town in western Syria, President Bashar Assad’s forces have turned their sights to driving rebel fighters from the country’s densely populated heartland, including the cities of Homs and Aleppo.

The latest battlefield success, due in large part to Lebanese Hezbollah fighters’ increasing role and the West’s continued reluctance to arm the rebels, raises the possibility that Assad can cling to power for years, even if he won’t be able to recapture all of the country.

Government troops pressed ahead Thursday with an aggressive military offensive in Homs province, seizing control of the village of Dabaa just north of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon. Hundreds of rebel fighters who had been entrenched in Qusair for more than a year fled Wednesday after a punishing three-week assault, retreating to surrounding areas.

The regime triumph in Qusair, a key crossroads town of supply lines between Damascus and western and northern Syria, showcased the potentially game-changing role of Hezbollah in Syria’s civil war and was openly celebrated in the militant group’s strongholds in Lebanon and in Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power.

Syrian state-run media portrayed Qusair’s fall as a turning point in the more than two-year civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people.

In reality, though, it’s unlikely that Assad will be able to roll back rebel gains across the country. Dozens of rebel fighter brigades have taken unquestioned control of huge swathes of territory in the country’s north and east, setting up local councils and Islamic courts to administer affairs in towns and villages. Kurds have all but carved out their own separate existence in the country’s northeast.

At best, Assad will continue to preside over a divided country, with armed militias ruling over ethnic fiefdoms. A violent insurgency is likely to continue even in areas where the regime regains control.

But if the regime continues to enjoy the strong backing of allies Hezbollah, Russia and Iran, Assad could try to reassert himself in much of Syria, even if he can’t win back all of the country.

Josef Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said he believes Assad is not aiming for outright victory over the rebels in all of Syria. “The objective is survival in what they (regime loyalists) consider the strategically important parts of Syria, with the majority of the population,” he said.

Following the victory in Qusair, the regime’s next targets are rebel-held areas in and around the city of Homs, a government official told The Associated Press. As Syria’s third-largest city and one-time epicenter of the uprising, Homs holds both strategic and symbolic importance for the regime.

In April 2011, one month after the uprising against Assad began, protesters gathered at central Clock Square in Homs, bringing mattresses, food and water in hopes of emulating Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution.

The peaceful, mass protests eroded Assad’s narrative that the uprising was the work of “terrorists” and “armed thugs,” and were quickly put down. Since then, the predominantly Sunni city, with Christian and Alawite minorities, has come under crushing attack on numerous occasions.

“The (army) command has put forward a plan, which is being executed,” said the government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge details about ongoing military operations.

He said the army was carrying out “quick, successive attacks” to secure the northern entrance of Homs city and seized the village of al-Khaldiyeh along the way Thursday. It also intends to regain the rebel strongholds of Rastan and Talbiseh, towns just north of Homs city.

Securing Homs could boost the momentum for Syrian troops in rolling back rebel gains in other parts of the country, including northern Syria, where the sides have been locked in a stalemate for months. Pro-regime media outlets have said government forces are preparing to move to retake the contested northern city of Aleppo next.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub, was overrun by rebels last summer, and remains one of the country’s bloodiest battlegrounds as rebels and regime forces fight over it.

Hezbollah fighters were instrumental to the regime victory in Qusair, but it’s not clear whether they will participate to the same extent in future battles deeper inside Syria.

Qusair is close to the Lebanese borders, making it easier for Hezbollah to ship fighters and weapons from the Lebanese side of the border. The militia has also sent fighters to two areas near Damascus, just a two-hour drive from the Lebanese border, while many of the rebel-held areas are more remote and more difficult for Hezbollah to reach.

The level of Hezbollah’s future involvement might depend, at least in part, on the backlash in Lebanon. The militia’s involvement, particularly since the start of the Qusair offensive, has led to growing clashes between Assad opponents and supporters in Lebanon, raising fears of a spillover into a fragile country scarred by its own 15-year civil war.

Hezbollah has justified its involvement in the fight for Qusair by saying it was protecting Lebanon from Sunni extremists among the ranks of rebels fighting Assad.

It’s unclear whether the Shiite militant group will be willing to stray so far from the Lebanese border, although there are unconfirmed reports that its fighters took part in an assault on two Shiite villages in Aleppo province.

Jeff White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the rebels were in for trouble, unless they improve their military and political command structure and get more weapons.

“The regime has laid down the challenge, and the rebels will have to respond, or they will have a bleak future ahead of them,” he said.

The West, particularly the United States, has been reluctant to send more sophisticated weapons out of fear they might fall into the hands of Islamic extremists fighting in the rebel ranks, including members of Jabhat al-Nusra, which has sworn allegiance to al-Qaida.

It remains to be seen whether Hezbollah’s military engagement alongside the Syrian regime will prod the West to arm the rebels, who are no match for Hezbollah’s military power and the regime’s aerial superiority. A European arms embargo expired last week, freeing up individual nations to arm the rebels unilaterally.

The recent military gains are also bound to harden regime positions if talks on a peaceful transition ever get off the ground.

A U.N.-sponsored international conference that was to bring representatives of the Assad government and the opposition together for negotiations has now been put off to at least July.

The regime has confirmed it will attend, albeit with conditions, while the main opposition group has gotten bogged down in discussions over who might attend, in part a reflection of rivalries between backers Saudi Arabia and Qatar, instead of devising a strategy for talks. Turkey, another country backing the rebels, has been distracted by large-scale anti-government protests at home.

All the while, Assad ally Russia has never wavered in its support of the Damascus government.

Holliday, the analyst, said that although Assad may succeed in expanding his control and cling to power, the conflict in Syria is likely to go on for a long time.

“No one is going to win this war. It’s going to go on for a while,” he said.

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Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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