The Battle for Homs By Alexey Pilko

7 March, 2012 — Voice of Russia

Recently, Syrian government forces completed the assault on Homs, a stronghold of anti-government military groups. According to media reports, a mop-up operation of the city is under way. However, even President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents did not dispute the fact that the Syrian army carried out a successful military operation last week that ended an almost month-long siege of a key strategic city.

The fact that the army could win in Homs became clear after the hysterical reaction of the Western media, which has exaggerated by threefold the actual number of requests to provide humanitarian corridors and stop the violence. During the siege of the city, Damascus never forbade civilians to leave it. Moreover, the military operation did not even cover the whole of Homs – only three neighborhoods, where there was a significant number of armed militants, were shelled, the most significant of which was Baba Amr. Thus, the demand that the Syrian army provide some special corridors through its positions would have meant the escape of armed opposition groups from Homs. If these groups had been let out of the trap, they could have gained a foothold somewhere else and created a new center of tension.

The fighting in Homs raised the question: who is opposing the government forces in Syria? It is very difficult to believe that ordinary city residents, armed with who knows what, stubbornly held back the onslaught of the elite Syrian Republican Guard and 4th Armored Division for a month. It is clear to any sane observer that the government forces faced off against well-armed and trained professionals. Therefore, it is important not to dismiss allegations that foreign mercenaries receiving weapons from abroad are operating on Syrian soil.

After Syrian government forces took control of Homs, information about the capture of a group of French officers began to appear in the media. The number of prisoners reported varied from 10 to 13 or even more. Damascus has remained silent on the issue. The French Foreign Ministry categorically denies any allegations that its armed forces are in Syria. However, the French Ministry of Defense is not so categorical. It has neither confirmed nor denied this the reports on the matter. This, as well as the rapid return to the Syrian capital of the Fifth Republic’s ambassador who had earlier left Damascus, makes one wonder.

One thing is certain: if the French military defended Homs, the international prestige of France will be dealt a serious blow. And Homs for Paris will be something like a Middle Eastern Dien Bien Phu.

The successful operation in Homs will of course strengthen the position of the current Syrian government. But its effect will be positive for Damascus only if Syrian security forces do not allow militants to create new centers of tension in Syria within a few weeks. It will be much more difficult to solve the problem of a second Homs. The Syrian military commanders seem to understand this perfectly clear. This is obvious from information coming from Syria about battles around Homs and extremists trying to break through. However, there have been disturbing reports that anti-government groups have tried to attack the Syrian army in the south of the country, in Daraa. So nothing is clear yet.

However, the successful assault on Homs has created certain problems for the countries that form the so-called anti-Syrian coalition. First, they have expressed clear regret that Homs failed to become a second Misurata, the town in Libya which Muammar Gaddafi’s troops unsuccessfully stormed last year. Indeed, the existence of such a bleeding wound on the body of a state allows considerable international pressure to be put on it. Second, almost simultaneously with the fall of Homs, a widely advertised meeting of the so-called “Friends of Syria” in Tunisia failed to reach an agreement. Based on available information, the U.S. flatly refused to take an active role in the planned military operation against President Bashar Assad’s regime, and promised only the air support. And only on conditions that other countries would volunteer to be the “pioneers” of the military operation on the ground.

Turkey, the strongest military power in the region, is also not eager to be involved in a direct confrontation with the Syrian army. Ankara fears an aggravation of the Kurdish problem. In addition, the Turkish government knows very well that a war against Syria would not be a cakewalk, especially taking into account the complicated relations between the military elite and the political leadership in the country. Will the Turkish army fight successfully on the orders of those who recently removed it from power?

Finally, France and Britain, whose military budgets bore the burden of regime change in Libya, are also quite limited in what they can do given the ongoing financial crisis in the European Union. Israel is unlikely to attack Syria, if only because then Syrian society would quickly rally around its leader. And Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the most zealous advocates of armed action, do not have the necessary military resources and can only finance attacks on Damascus.

The anti-Syrian coalition has apparently taken an operational break to develop a new action plan considering the fall of Homs and the failure of the meeting of “Friends of Syria.” And placed a bet on the PR campaign against Damascus. At the same time, pro-Syrian forces are also stepping up their efforts. China has put forward a “six point” program (practically the same as Russian proposals). Syria’s traditional ally Iran is not withholding support. Tehran exerts certain influence upon Iraq, which in some areas has begun to cooperate with Syria.

As far as Russia is concerned, active support for Damascus could strengthen its position in the international arena. It should be noted that no one in the U.S. or Europe expected Moscow to oppose the West so decisively in its quest to replay the Libyan scenario in Syria. Russia’s demarche at the UN, the visit by an aircraft carrier group to Syrian port of Tartus, and its refusal to impose an embargo on arms supplies to Syria greatly contributed to the success of government forces in the country. As a result, Moscow has managed to further assert itself as an independent player in the Middle East and demonstrated an independent foreign policy. In addition, it took the strategically correct position: adhering strictly to its policy of following existing international law, which stipulates non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

In general, if Russia plays its cards right, together with its partners that adhere to recognized principles of international law, it will win a major diplomatic victory in the Middle East. And then we can talk about its return to the international arena as a global player. In the current situation, it is important for Moscow to stick to its diplomatic line and in the future think about strengthening its presence (political, economic and military) in the eastern Mediterranean. This will give our country a strong reference point that will increase its regional and global influence.

Alexey Pilko, Associate Professor at the Moscow State University Department of World Politics

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