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Syrian Civil War: A Homage To Homs

April 1, 2012

As 2012’s first quarter ends, new chapters were added to the annals of urban warfare. Last week, the battle for control of Homs finally reached an uncertain conclusion as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was pushed from its neighborhood strongholds. This may count as a significant defeat even if the FSA have defiantly refused any sponsored dialogue in exchange for a cease fire.

Like most urban centers in Syria, Homs has a storied past. It’s an old city that was fought over multiple times across different eras. Syria, after all, was strategically vital as far back as the age of Alexander the Great.

In the 21st century battle for Homs, however, a pivotal campaign stretched months to decide the fate of Syria. Officially, President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime claims that it has crushed the rebels, as a report from Reuters indicates:

“The battle to topple the state is over,” Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdissi told Syria TV late on Friday. “Our goal now is to ensure stability and create a perspective for reform and development in Syria while preventing others from sabotaging the path of reform.

But fighting continues and the details that have surfaced deserve scrutinizing. The crackdown on Homs was a calculated operation that took a few pages from the Chechen Wars, particularly the siege of Grozny.

The first step for Syria’s army was to encircle Homs and then pulverize it. Robert Young Pelton wrote an illuminating piece about this stratagem for Foreign Policy. (For additional reading of the analytical variety, try Jeffrey White.) Following the rocket, mortar, and artillery bombardment were boots on the ground; soldiers going from street to street that recalls the slow boil of Fallujah in Iraq. Tanks and armored vehicles are always a liability in congested urban areas anyway, though tanks have been spotted within Homs.

What seems to have broken the resistance in Homs was the incessant bombardment. It’s no fun being at the receiving end of rocket salvos and airstrikes—it hurts morale most of all. This disadvantage was compounded by the fact that the FSA, whose political representation and command apparatus is based in neighboring Turkey, are an infantry force.

Well, so is Hezbollah, one might argue, but keep in mind Hezbollah have long been entrenched in Southern Lebanon, with extensive supplies and communications to weather a protracted campaign. (See the 2006 war.) Additionally, the FSA lack heavy weapons. They do possess ATGMs and RPGs are abundant, unfortunately not enough quantities are available to blunt the regime’s armored might.

Another problem of the FSA is despite vocal and material support from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, they are stretched thin across several small theaters, mostly cities. Rather than operate like the Shiites in Southern Iraq (thanks Quds Force) or the Sunni insurgents in Anbar, the FSA are not a shadowy movement.

For months now it has been known that they are composed of defectors and are led by officers who switched their allegiance. They may have the foreign sponsorship down pat—a vital necessity in any rebellion—yet when it comes to opposing Assad’s military they need a broader arsenal matched with the tactical sophistication to disrupt much of Syria.

If they are bent on going it alone, without obvious foreign intervention (special forces are welcome though), toppling the Assad regime requires a long bitter fight. This is where the FSA’s character makes a difference. Instead of the rabble that snuffed Gaddafi, the FSA are a hardened fighting force. If they can manage to prolong the fight, then the scales should tip in their favor.