Analysis | Regime 1, Rebels 0. |

Solution to Syria War Increasingly Seems Dependent on Decisions of West, Arab States

The battle over the Quneitra crossing is critical from Israel's perspective, but it won't clinch victory for Assad. While Western and Arab states dither over whether to arm the rebels, it’s the aid that will determine the civil war's outcome.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The battles being waged at the time of writing over the Quneitra crossing are critical from Israel’s perspective. But even if the Assad regime’s forces succeed in gaining control of it, it won’t win them the war against the rebels.

Control of the crossings between Syria and its neighbors was determined months ago, when the rebels seized most of the crossings with Turkey and Iraq, along with some of the crossings to northern Lebanon. These seizures were important to assure the supply of combatants, weapons, and ammunition to the rebel forces and to demonstrate their “sovereignty” over the land link between Syria and the other countries in the region.

In contrast, the Quneitra crossing is not a supply route for the rebels and it carries little strategic importance for them. But for the Syrian government, Quneitra is very strategically important, particularly because of its proximity to the Israeli border. It’s true that Syrian President Bashar Assad gave a free hand to anyone who wants to start up with Israel on the Golan Heights, but in practice the last thing he wants is to give Jerusalem an excuse to attack Syria because forces over which he has no control start firing at Israel.

This is very different from his seizing the town of Al-Qusair, which was a blow to the rebel’s morale, and a tactical and perhaps strategic turning point as well.

For one thing, Qusair sits on the crucial route between Damascus and northern Syria and between Lebanon and the rebel centers in Homs - now the rebels will have to find other, much more difficult routes than the one only a few kilometers from the Lebanon Valley. But even more significant is that Qusair had become a symbol of the revolt, to the extent that some described it as the rebels’ Stalingrad. Qusair is considered a significant rebel defeat, and it is already causing disputes within the Free Syrian Army, whose units are exchanging blame for the military failure.

Qusair was also considered by the rebels to be a test of their mettle, through which they wanted to prove to the West that they had the power to hold strategic arteries that could lead them to victory over Assad’s army. That’s why the timing of the regime’s attack was significant – it came as the West, Russia, Turkey, Iran and some of the Arab states are planning to convene the Geneva conference, and it was important to the rebels to demonstrate military capabilities that were liable to tip the scales in favor of Western military assistance. After all, there’s a difference between military aid to forces that have the momentum of victory, and aid to retreating, divided forces that can’t guarantee the overthrow of the government.

This consideration carries great importance, particularly since there is a serious disagreement between France and Britain on the one hand, and the United States on the other, about how to respond to the accumulating evidence that Assad used chemical weapons. Assad’s victory in Qusair plays directly into the hands of Russian and Iran, who can now claim that the Syrian regime is regaining control and that it should be helped in order to stabilize the country.

At the same time, Assad’s victory in Qusair, important as it is, is very far from the end of the conflict. Assad’s army is now planning a major assault on the city of Aleppo, but it must also retake the northern sections of the large city of Homs, face the rebels in the southern city of Dara, and deal with pockets of rebel forces north of Homs, in the Rastan area and in dozens of villages that the rebels control, if he wants to take back command of the country.

The conquest of Qusair was indeed crucial to preventing the supply of arms to the rebels from Lebanon, but Assad won’t be able to block weapon supplies from Turkey, the Kurdish district or from Jordan if these countries decide to send the rebels weapons, or if there is an international decision to directly arm the rebels, rather than merely finance their weapons purchases.

After the battle at Qusair, it looks more and more as if resolution of this conflict is dependent on the decisions of the Western and Arab states, and therein lies the strategic paradox. These countries will have to estimate the chances of the rebel army winning before they decide whether to arm them, while at the same time it’s the aid itself that will determine the chances of the rebel army to win.

Forces loyal to the Syrian army celebrate as they drive through the main square of Qusair after government forces seized the former rebel base.Credit: AFP
Smoke rises from a fire as a result of fighting in the Syrian village of Quneitra near the border with Israel. Credit: AP
An Israeli tank is loaded onto a truck near the Quneitra crossing with Syria.Credit: AP

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