The Syrian Army Renews Offensive in Homs
Key Takeaway: In late June 2013, the Syrian government renewed its campaign in the central Syrian province of Homs, indicating that it failed to achieve its operational and strategic objectives after defeating the rebels in al-Qusayr. By quickly shifting its efforts to Aleppo in an attempt to force a decisive battle before rebels could reconsolidate troops and acquire promised foreign supplies, the Syrian government failed to consolidate its gains in Homs. Thus, the opposition was able to exploit remaining vulnerabilities, particularly by reopening supply lines from Lebanon, in ways that forced the Syrian army back to Homs province, diverting resources from the offensive the regime planned for Aleppo. The campaign in Homs shows the Syrian government’s difficulty with launching sequential campaigns without operational pause, as well as the challenges it faces from launching multiple, simultaneous offensives in Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus in ways that protract each fight.
In late June 2013, Syrian government forces renewed their campaign in the central Syrian province of Homs. After a two-day bombardment of Homs city, Syrian troops, backed by Hezbollah irregular forces, have begun a ground attack against the city. This attack follows a smaller set of operations to retake the surrounding towns and villages that remained in rebel control following the fall of al-Qusayr in early June. Although the Syrian government is on the offensive tactically in Homs, in fact, the need for a renewed campaign in the area indicates that the Syrian government failed to achieve its operational and strategic objectives after defeating the rebels in al-Qusayr.
Before the battle for al-Qusayr had ended, reports from the field indicated that the Syrian government had already set its sights on Aleppo and was deploying troops to northern Syria. At the same time, field commanders in Aleppo province warned that Hezbollah units had begun to arrive, and by June 10, Hezbollah forces were attacking villages along the main Turkey – Aleppo highway. Such operations indicated that the Syrian government was targeting Minnakh airbase, under siege by the opposition, and was looking to re-open critical ground lines of communication for the government in patterns similar to previous operations conducted at the Wadi al-Deif military base. Through these maneuvers on Minnakh and in the countryside, the Syrian government hopes to set the terms for the siege of Aleppo. However, in quickly shifting its efforts to Aleppo in an attempt to force a decisive battle before rebels could reconsolidate troops and acquire promised foreign supplies, the Syrian government failed to consolidate its gains in Homs. As a result, the opposition was able to exploit remaining vulnerabilities, particularly by reopening supply lines from Lebanon, in ways that forced the Syrian army back to Homs province, diverting resources from the offensive the regime planned for Aleppo.
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During the final clashes in al-Qusayr, it appeared as though the Syrian regime would prevent a rebel withdrawal. This was unique in that the regime had typically allowed the opposition to retreat if it ensured a more rapid takeover of the area. Many rebel commanders feared that their comrades trapped inside al-Qusayr would be slaughtered in a regime attempt to defeat rebel forces in the Homs countryside conclusively and limit their ability to regroup and stage a counteroffensive. However, at the last minute, a settlement was negotiated reportedly between rebel forces and Hezbollah commanders that allowed the rebels to withdraw through the remaining civilian corridors guarded by Hezbollah units. Thus, many of those fighting in al-Qusayr managed to escape to some of the nearby towns and villages, including the predominantly Sunni towns of al-Hosun and Tal Kalakh where they were able to regroup. Shortly thereafter, many of the irregular pro-regime forces, including Hezbollah troops and National Defense Forces, were deployed to Aleppo along with Syrian army units. As a result, the remaining rebel strongholds in Homs province were left largely uncontested, including the areas of Rastan and Talbisseh where rebel reinforcements had amassed during the battle for al-Qusayr.
Moving their base of operations from al-Qusayr to other neighboring villages, the armed opposition was able to reopen some of the smaller supply lines from Lebanon into Homs that had been closed off when al-Qusayr fell. For this reason, Tal Kalakh became again an important transit point for smuggling weapons and fighters into the area. By reopening some supply lines, the rebels were able to maneuver against government positions in ways that threatened the regime’s corridor from the coastal area through Homs and into Damascus, upsetting a number of the victories achieved by the regime in its takeover of al-Qusayr. Thus, the Syrian government was forced to renew its campaign in Homs and redistribute its efforts yet again to focus on the Homs countryside, particularly Tal Kalakh.
However, after an initial series of clashes between armed opposition groups and Syrian troops in Tal Kalakh, local town leaders negotiated a settlement with the regime in which rebel fighters either surrendered their weapons to regime troops or fled the town. While the exact circumstances behind the negotiated settlement remain obscure, two reasons have been reported as the primary motivations for the agreement. First, reports suggest that local town leaders, fearing that their town would be destroyed in the wake of fighting, urged rebel groups to give up peacefully and prevent the all-out bombardment and destruction of the town. Secondly, rebel fighters claim that the regime offered considerable humanitarian aid deliveries, the resumption of basic services in the town, and the protection of civilians and surrendering fighters in return for a negotiated regime takeover. In this case, the Syrian government was able to leverage its access to resources and supplies among a population in desperate need of humanitarian aid, and use its air superiority to play on fears of the destruction caused by aerial bombardment. In cases where civilians are desperate to get food and medical care, the Syrian government is able to use aid as an important negotiating tool. Given the opposition’s inability to provide resources or to protect civilians, similar agreements will likely occur in the future unless the opposition is sufficiently empowered by having aid resources of its own.
With Tal Kalakh in the hands of the Syrian government, few rebel strongholds remain in the province of Homs. Although the opposition is thoroughly entrenched in parts of Homs city, much of the countryside has been cleared of rebel presence and the frequency of government checkpoints has grown. The few remaining areas of opposition control are now being attacked with the ongoing aerial bombardment of Rastan and Talbisseh; clearance operations in the villages by irregular troops including those of Hezbollah, the Jaysh al-Sha‘abi, and National Defense Forces; and a major government offensive underway in the city of Homs.
Activists in Homs city said all cellular lines were cut early on June 29 before airplanes pounded rebel-held districts in the city. The two-day long air campaign was followed by intense shelling with artillery, mortars, and tanks, before government troops attempted to advance. Throughout the week, rebel forces have engaged in intense clashes with government troops in Khaldiyeh, Hamidiyah, and the Old City. Government forces are attempting to push into rebel-held districts from all sides, and are choking rebel supply lines into the city. Syrian troops, supported by Hezbollah irregular forces, have also been conducting ground operations to limit rebel activity along the main Hama highway and to cut off critical supply lines from Lebanon into Homs. "This is the worst campaign against the city since the revolution began," said an activist in the rebel-held old quarter of the city. Rebel commanders reinforced this message, adding that the regime has significantly accelerated its operations in Homs province in the past week, and has brought substantial forces to bear, aided by both air superiority and Iranian, Hezbollah, and Iraqi irregular forces. Although rebel fighters are sufficiently entrenched in Homs to ensure a prolonged fight for the city, the opposition currently lacks the requisite arms and supplies to hold off the offensive for an extended period of time. The delaying action in Homs is strategically significant because it gains the opposition time in Aleppo, but if the regime is able to consolidate its hold in Homs city and the countryside, it may be able to secure its lines of communication in ways that make its ultimate offensive in Aleppo more effective.
The factor that will most limit the regime’s ability to redeploy assets from Homs to Aleppo will be holding cleared terrain, which can be time consuming and troop intensive. In addition to ongoing operations, the Syrian government has also been attempting to shore up its military success in Homs province by repopulating the towns and villages that come under regime control with Alawites. In al-Qusayr, citizens from the 23 neighboring Alawi villages have been encouraged to relocate in al-Qusayr into the homes of those who fled during the fighting. This has also been seen in other predominantly Sunni towns that have come under regime control including al-Qariatayn, al-Zahraa, and now Tal Kalakh. Reconnaissance reports from rebel commanders indicate that Syrian troops are increasingly using barbed wire fences, barricades, and wide zones of landmine fields to seal the occupied areas and eliminate the chance that the former, largely Sunni inhabitants will return to their homes. By resettling Alawites into formerly Sunni villages and towns, the Syrian government is attempting to create new demographic realities that help ensure that the countryside does not fall again into rebel hands. Moreover, surrounding key cities with supportive communities allows the Syrian government to use these villages as a base for staging operations against remaining rebel strongholds and helps create conditions more conducive to regime victory in Homs city itself. The regime’s actions in the countryside are a departure from the regime’s policy in February and March 2012, during its last major offensive in Homs, when it was still prioritizing fighting for the cities in the urban areas, not their environs.
Overall, the Syrian government’s campaign in Homs sheds light on two important markers of overall regime capability: its difficulty with launching sequential campaigns without an operational pause, as well as the challenges it faces from launching multiple, simultaneous offensives in Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus in ways that protract each fight. That the Syrian government shifted its focus of operations to Aleppo before consolidating its gains in Homs allowed the armed opposition to capitalize on remaining vulnerabilities and reestablish supply lines, minimizing the overall impact achieved by the regime in its takeover of al-Qusayr. The Syrian government was thus forced to redeploy troops sent to Aleppo back to Homs in order to ensure that its recent military gains in the province were not threatened. This suggests that consecutive large-scale offensives remain difficult for the Syrian government, and that the rush to Aleppo was premature. Given the distribution of its resources and the forces required to conduct major offensives at this point, it also remains difficult for the Syrian government to conduct simultaneous large-scale offensives. Although the Syrian government has been able to maintain its current level of operations in Aleppo, it has been unable to launch a major offensive against the city while simultaneously conducting an offensive in Homs. Assad’s forces are too limited to conduct decisive operations in multiple fronts simultaneously, and once they move on from one location, they risk losing it again.
Although the regime lacks the capacity to defeat the armed opposition decisively, it has been able to rely on air power and irregular forces to ensure control of Syria's most populated and economically important districts while ceding less-strategically important parts of the countryside to rebel-control. However, in so doing, the nature of the regime forces has largely changed, now representing less of a national, standing army and more of a coalition of mainly militia forces with heavy weapons, including air power, at their disposal. For the time being, this has given the Syrian government the momentum on the ground. Yet it will also likely lead to a number of unintended consequences as chains of command and command and control become less directly tied to the Syrian government and Assad himself, and the increasingly naked sectarian path of the Syrian government provokes greater international involvement. The coalition that has generated badly needed reinforcements also may generate critical vulnerabilities for the regime, especially if it is not able to defeat the opposition decisively and quickly, given that a protracted conflict will strain the will of participants to fight. If the opposition receives international assistance before losing critical terrain, they will likely be able to prevent the redeployment of regime forces from Homs and reset the terms of battle for Aleppo.
 Interviews with rebel commanders from Aleppo province via Skype in June 2013.
 For more information on these operations please see, Liam Durfee, Conor McCormick, and Stella Peisch, “The Battle for Aleppo,” Institute for the Study of War, June 13, 2013.
 Patrick Cockburn, “Tal Kalakh, Syria’s rebel town that forged its own peace deal,” The Independent, June 25, 2013.
 Interview with Syrian opposition fighters from Homs province via Skype in June 2013.
 Bassem Mroue, “Homs hit with air strike by Syrian fighter jets as Assad troops remain offensive,” AP, June 29, 2013.
 Interview with Syrian opposition commanders and fighters from Homs province via Skype in June and July 2013.
 “Exclusive report on the cleansing of Tal-Kalakh,” Syrian Support Group, July 3, 2013; “Jumblatt accuses Syrian regime of ethnic cleansing plan in Homs,” NOW, July 2, 2013; Confirmed by rebels operating in Homs province during interviews on Skype in June and July 2013.
 Joseph Holliday, Syria’s Armed Opposition. Institute for the Study of War, March 8, 2012, p. 36; http://understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Syrias_Armed_Opposition.pdf.
 “Regime troops move from Aleppo in large offensive against Homs,” al-Safir, June 28, 2013, translated from Arabic; “Syrian army renews offensive on Homs,” Al-Arabiya, June 30, 2013, translated from Arabic; confirmed by rebel commanders during interviews via Skype in June and July 2013.