Middle East

Syrian regime hopes for strategic gain from Qusair

A general view shows soldiers loyal to the Syrian regime with their military tanks in Qusair
Image caption Rebels withdrew from Qusair in the face of a massive regime offensive

The Syrian Prime Minister Wail al-Halqi has described the ousting of rebels from Qusair as "a strategic turning point".

Similar claims were made in February last year when government forces finally overran the rebel-held quarter of Baba Amr in Homs.

That turned out not to be the seminal victory the regime had hoped for, although, as with Qusair, both sides had invested the battle there with huge political and symbolic significance.

The fall of Qusair town had become more or less a formality after government forces and their Hezbollah allies won control of most of the surrounding countryside.

In the end, rebel fighters recognised their situation as untenable and withdrew on Tuesday night, apparently under an informal understanding that they would be allowed safe passage. That enabled army troops and Hezbollah to advance into the town unopposed the following morning.

Whether the government victory at Qusair will prove to be a real turning point will depend on the wider ebb and flow of the struggle for control of the country.

But in immediate terms, it is clearly a major blow to the rebels, denying them easy use of an important supply route from friendly, Sunni-populated enclaves in north-east Lebanon to Homs and central Syria.

From Hezbollah's point of view, it gives the Shia movement an easier connection between Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, where Hezbollah holds sway, and the major Syrian cities, as well as the Alawite coastal heartland to the north-west, which could prove vital if Syria eventually heads towards fragmentation.

Difference of purpose

The move at Qusair was part of a broader regime campaign to sever cross-border supply routes that has scored some success in the south and north as well.

Combined with an aggressive campaign to regain control of the suburbs around Damascus, all this has meant that the threat of a rebel assault on the centre of the capital, which seemed imminent towards the end of last year, has been staved off, at least for the time being.

But diplomats believe these gains could not have been made without help from Hezbollah, not just at Qusair but also around Damascus, where Iraqi Shia militias have also been playing a role.

The assumption is that Hezbollah will continue its spearheading role in other areas, perhaps Homs and Aleppo.

But its resources and manpower are not infinite, and unless there is a wholesale collapse of rebel morale and capabilities, it is hard to imagine regime and allied forces rapidly reconquering the whole country, as government officials have pledged.

But the Qusair affair has highlighted not just the fragmented nature of the rebel fighters on the ground, but also the total disarray of the Istanbul-based political opposition.

While that contrasts with the regime's singleness of purpose, there is a similarly glaring discrepancy between the focused commitment Damascus has been able to count on from its key allies, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, and the discordant, hesitant and ineffective backing provided to the opposition by its motley array of regional and Western supporters.

If an international peace conference does indeed emerge from the American and Russian proposal, Qusair leaves the opposition in disastrous shape in terms of confronting a tough, cohesive regime team.