Free Syrian Army members celebrating in front of a regime tank destroyed in Rastan
For the first time in many months, the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian opposition, appears to be carrying out widespread offensive attacks. Yesterday, several operating bases outside Al Rastan, north of Homs, fell to the insurgent fighters. Those fighters were able to beat back several regime counter-attacks, as the Syrian military alternated between shelling the city and advancing with tanks. Perhaps 20 regime soldiers were killed. There were more firefights last night and more shelling today, and still the FSA has not lost ground.
The fighting had been renewed last week. Last Tuesday night, the towns north of Homs were rocked by heavy artillery shelling, and the next morning, the commander of the FSA announced that it would no longer abide by the ceasefire, as it had already been broken by regime troops. The BBC's Lyse Doucet confirmed that an extremely well-organised opposition attack was launched the previous night. After three months of largely defensive action, the insurgents were once again taking the fight to the Assad military.
And the regime should not have been surprised. Its bombardment, nearly constant for four straight days, is likely a direct response to increased FSA attacks. But still the insurgents have a victory, though small in terms of the amount of territory controlled, right in the heart of occupied Syria. Every minute that Al Rastan's forward bases are controlled by the insurgents extends that major success for the opposition.
The Syrian military was content in allowing the FSA to occupy Rastan. Attempts to retake the town, and similar FSA strongholds, have proved extremely bloody since February, and they also provide opportunity for the insurgents to capture soldiers and equipment, while restocking their ranks with defectors.So instead, the Syrian military has besieged Rastan for months, shelling it from the countryside and conducting raids down its main thoroughfares.
That strategy is now dented. The fall of the operating bases provides the FSA with a more secure stronghold. This situation is likely intolerable for the regime, and we are likely to see an intensification in attacks.
In itself, that would probably mean a return to the shaky status quo, with the regime regaining its positions and resuming shelling. However, the situation is beyond Rastan. There have been reports of FSA activity in Homs city, in Talbiseh to the south of Rastan, in the Halwe region to the west, and in Qusayr to the south of Homs. These areas are heavily defended by the regime --- the video shows Free Syrian Army soldiers and citizen reporters traveling with the United Nations convoy, straight through a military checkpoint defended by armoured vehicles and tanks:
Are these developments significant? Maybe. Certainly they are giving the insurgents a boost and will likely increase the opposition's morale overall. Looking farther, Al Rastan is fairly significant to the Homs region, and Homs is highly significant to Syria. A Free Syrian Army holding parts of it could cut Damascus and Daraa off from the rest of the country, creating an area that --- if unified under opposition military control --- could put the regime on the defensive.
That may be going too far for a small battle. One shouldn't look into it too much. But the bottom line is that the FSA is showing a degree of coordination and a military capability that it has displayed rarely since February. If the FSA is now capable of winning victories in Hawle, Talbiseh, or Qusayr, before their positions in Al Rastan are overrun by regime troops, then the regime does not look like one which is secure.
There are signs that the regime is worried that the FSA offensive near Homs could be part of a nationwide campaign. Upon news of the FSA success, there were many reports of troops flocking towards Hama, Daraa Province, and the Damascus suburbs. Last night there was heavy fighting in several areas east of Damascus.
President Assad's men are nervous. Developments over the next week --- which will likely be dwarfed by the media's focus on the politics of the crisis --- will tell whether those nerves will be further frayed.