Syrian government troops won an important strategic victory in retaking the border city of Qusair this past week. Yet, military experts doubt that this means the forces of President Assad can push further north.
Anyone traveling around Syria will end up passing through Qusair, sooner or later. The town is in the heart of the country, nestled between idyllic olive and apricot groves roughly halfway between Damascus and Aleppo.When moving inland from the coast one also arrives in Qusair. Some 150 kilometers to the east is Palmyra, while westwards it's only a few kilometers to Lebanon.
This central location has become a curse for Qusair. In early 2012, the town was taken by rebels, who then were able to cut the line between Damascus and the rest of the country. In May this year, the Assad regime went on a counter offensive: For three weeks they besieged the town, shelling it relentlessly with no regard for the civilians trapped inside. Eventually, with massive support from Lebanon's Hezbollah, government troops managed to take control of the town - or what is left of it. Qusair has been largely reduced to rubble. The town once had some 30,000 people living there; currently, a mere 5,000 are left.
Crucial transport routes
The case of Qusair shows what Syria's civil war is mostly about: The central transportation routes that are needed to keep supply lines open. The Turkish think tank, EDAM, in a recent study of the geostrategic side of the conflict, described the situation as a "fight over transport lines, communications and highways."
Qusair was not only a prize because of its central location in the country. The town is also important because it connects Damascus with the Syrian coastline where many members of the Alawite community live of which President Assad is a member and from where he draws his most adamant supporters. Should the regime fall, the coastal towns would most likely be Assad's area of retreat.
In that sense, retaking Qusair is a success for the regime, explained Volker Perthes of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. But it's difficult to say if single victories, like Qusair, will have a major impact on the military conflict as a whole. "The rebels might not be able to win as quickly as they thought. But, at the same time, the regime has not been able to retake larger areas in the north and northeast of the country," Perthes said.
Countryside vs towns and cities
And it's those northern territories that count. That is where the rebels are in control. "The rebels are strongest in the province of Itlib in the northwest," David Butter of Chatham House told DW. They also are in control of parts of Aleppo as well as the neighboring regions to the north and east all the way to the Turkish border. They also hold parts of the Euphrates valley and rural regions around the town of Homs.
In the largest towns, however, it's the regime that has the upper hand. It has achieved military victories in Damascus, Homs and Tartus where Russia has a military base. But nothing is decided yet, insists Hisham Marwah, a spokesman for the central rebel organization, Syrian National Council. "The regime is making progress mostly because the rebels don't have enough weapons. Should they receive more arms, the situation will change very quickly."
Military conflict unpredictable
Currently, it looks like the regime is regaining territory and momentum. But it's not certain whether they will be able to use Qusair to launch an offensive against Aleppo. "That could be quite difficult, since the supply routes would be very long. And they wouldn't be able to control the rural regions," notes Butter.
It's also doubtful whether the Assad regime will ever be able to regain control of all of Syria, having lost the trust of most of the population. Recent military successes only partly suggest how the conflict might continue. The rebels are still determined to win, while the government is dependent on support from Iran and Russia. "But it costs Iran a lot of money and it costs Russia its international diplomatic credibility. The regime can only survive as long as its got that backing of its supporters."