After three years of intense fighting, famine-like conditions and immense bloodshed, the city of Homs has fallen to the Assad government in Syria.
Assad’s allies have hailed the negotiated retreat (completed 8 May) by the remaining rebels into rural areas north of the city as a decisive victory.
“The capital of the revolution”, as it was called after the beginning of the anti-Assad revolt in March 2011, will now be “rebuilt” from a gutted shell.
Assad subjected Homs to wave after wave of brutal attacks, including chemical weapons and so called, “barrel bombs”, barrels filled with explosives and nails dropped from helicopters which indiscriminately killed thousands of civilians. Alongside the bombings was a constant siege of the city, with only limited aid being allowed in following UN negotiation in February.
Malnutrition and near starvation forced the rebels to retreat. Last-ditch resistance has been through suicide bombings by the largest Islamist militia, the Al-Nusra front.
Assad is organising a presidential election for 3 June to reinstall him for a further seven years. It is effectively a plebiscite. To run in the election, candidates had to gain approval from at least one-third of Syria’s parliament. Assad will probably have (as stage-props) just two largely unknown opponents, both of them part of a tolerated opposition that existed prior to the 2011 protests.
A Russian official (Russia is among Assad’s main allies) quotes Assad as saying that “the active phase of military action” will finish this year.
The official Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), has been lobbying Washington in vain for access to anti-aircraft weaponry. The US has given limited recognition to the Syrian opposition, but remains unwilling to provide arms for fears that these will fall into the hands of anti-US forces in the ever-fractured, divided and sectarianised opposition.
The SNC is almost entirely based outside Syria and keeps a deliberate distance from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Conversely, only some of the FSA would see the SNC as their political wing.
The SNC says, and maybe rightly, that Assad cannot be defeated unless Russia, Iran and Hezbollah withdraw their support.
The Assad-Iran-Hezbollah-Russia alliance remains unified and is far better resourced than any of the rebels.
A victory for Assad in Syria is not just the continuing of a brutal dictatorship but the furtherance of a Shiite sectarian agenda. The snowballing of these tensions across the region is an ever-increasing reality of the war in Syria.
Iran wishes to extend its influence across the Middle East, particularly in opposition to the Sunni absolute monarchies that support the rebels. They are aiding Assad not so much for his own sake as to ensure that they can continue to assert their influence across the Middle East.
Buoyed up by Putin’s successes in Ukraine, Russia has little interest in compromise with the US over Syria.
Socialists should remain opposed to a victory for the Syrian government, and back popular protest against Assad. However, the opposition has fractured too much for a general position of support for it to be viable.
A rebel victory is now unlikely. Even if it happened, in anything like the current balance of forces, it would signify triumph for factions of reactionary fundamentalists with a sectarian agenda.