Syria’s army is closing in on Homs, Syria’s third-largest city—at least until much of it was destroyed in 2011, 2012, and 2013. The remaining rebel stronghold in the Old City of Homs has withstood nearly two years of army attacks and a crippling siege. If the Syrian government manages to capture the Old City, what would that mean for the conflict?
Unlike Damascus and Aleppo, Homs was an early recruit to the revolution. In mid-April 2011, as the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad celebrated its first month, Assad’s army struck with brutal force against demonstrators massed in the central New Clock Tower Square in Homs. Dozens of Syrians were killed on what would long remain the most lethal day of the uprising. The “Clock Tower Massacre,” as the opposition called it, was an important step on Syria’s path to civil war.
When the regime took the nearby city of Rastan in September 2011, rebels like those of the Farouq Battalion fled south to Homs. They sought shelter in the large Sunni working-class neighborhoods that had by then turned into no-go areas for the government, and they quickly drew hundreds of new recruits. The Baba Amr neighborhood in south Homs became a byword for Syria’s armed uprising.
Five months later, the regime retook Baba Amr with overwhelming force, shelling it with tanks and artillery and forcing most inhabitants to flee. By late March 2012, Baba Amr was safe enough for Assad to show up in person for a symbolic victory stroll in front of the cameras. But it was a Pyrrhic victory; the destruction of Baba Amr had decisively tipped Syria into sectarian civil war.
Assad’s ability to draw on local Alawite supporters meant that his government had access to ample manpower in Homs, unlike in many other areas of the country. The regime poured guns and money into pro-Assad neighborhoods and used Iranian and Hezbollah support to stand up militias in the nearby Alawite, Christian, and Shia villages. In mid-2012, the government began to reorganize its myriad of local militias into the National Defense Forces, a unified paramilitary organization.
From that point on, the rebels in Homs were on the defensive. The conquest of Qusayr to the south, between May and June 2013, cut off rebel supply lines from Lebanon. With the aid of the National Defense Forces, the army was then able to isolate the remaining rebel pockets in the Homs area, one by one. For most of the past two years, the remnants of the original Homs insurgency have been penned into the Old City. They have held their ground surprisingly well, but the regime’s policy of inflicting deliberate starvation may have been the final straw.
Since the UN helped negotiate a local ceasefire deal in February 2014, hundreds of rebels have followed the civilian evacuees out of Homs, surrendering to the regime in return for safe passage. Now rebels in the Old City say the end could be near.
But even if the Old City were to fall, it would not mean the end of the insurgency in Homs Province. The opposition still has strong support throughout the Sunni countryside.
The large suburb of Waer, to the west of the city of Homs, is at least partly under rebel control and subject to fierce government shelling. While most of the Syrian-Lebanese border region to the southwest has fallen to the government, there are still rebel groups working in the northwestern Houla region and directly to the north, in a sizeable enclave around Rastan and Talbiseh on the Homs–Hama road. Both sides continue to report major clashes, and there is routine shelling of rebel-held villages, indicating that even if the government manages to retake the Old City, its position in the wider Homs region will be far from stable.
However, if the government recaptures Old Homs, it will further cement Assad’s grip on an area of Syria he truly cannot afford to relinquish. Homs is Syria’s most important transport hub, controlling not only the north–south highway between Damascus and Aleppo and the road linking the capital and the coast but also several pipelines and parts of the electric power infrastructure.
Retaking the Old City would free up forces for operations in other areas, mopping up smaller rebel concentrations around Homs and consolidating regime gains. Targets would then most likely include Waer to the west as well as the northern Houla-Rastan-Talbiseh rebel enclave. With Homs having yet again proved the efficacy of Assad’s siege-and-starve strategy, these towns could be next in line for a cutoff in food, medicine, and basic supplies.
Yet, it is somewhat doubtful whether a regime victory in Homs would release significant forces for operations further afield. The province will remain restive and require many thousands of soldiers and militiamen on guard duty, and a major insurgency could easily erupt again if its wounds are left to fester with no serious attempt at reconciliation—and Assad seems to have no political compromises in mind at all.
The regime has also relied heavily on the Homs wing of the National Defense Forces, a local militia whose members are not supposed to fight outside the province. While many recruits can presumably be counted on to continue the battle in the immediate surroundings of Homs, it’s not obvious that they could be shipped off in any great numbers to, for example, Aleppo or Deir ez-Zor—areas where they are most sorely needed.
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