Qusayr's fall boosts Assad's hand
THE capture by Syrian pro-government forces of the strategic Qusayr region is a major victory for President Bashar Al-Assad, who is now better placed than ever if a US-Russian plan for peace talks materialises.
The regime has "the advantage right now" while the rebels are "losing morale", said Dr Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center.
"What Qusayr confirms is that the regime's fall is not inevitable and, in fact, the rebels might actually lose," said Dr Hamid.
The regime announced Qusayr's takeover from rebel hands on Wednesday, more than two weeks after a vast Hezbollah-led assault on the town and a year after it first fell into insurgent hands.
Qusayr lies at a key juncture between regime stronghold Damascus and the coastline, a bastion of the Alawite community to which Mr Assad's clan belongs.
The town is also important "because it lies on a rebel supply route" from majority Sunni areas in northern Lebanon to Homs in central Syria, noted military analyst Naji Malaeb of the Dubai-based Inegma centre.
The nearly-three-week battle for Qusayr in central Syria also exposed the central role played by Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hezbollah, a key Assad backer.
Analysts believe the group's fighters, who are experienced in guerilla warfare, will remain engaged wherever the regime needs them.
Thousands of fighters, civilians and injured people evacuated the town, most of them to a nearby insurgent-held village.
"On a psychological level, this is very important, not just for Syria but for the international community," said Dr Hamid. "In any peace conference or negotiations, it puts the regime at an advantage."
The international community has been pushing since last month for a US-Russian peace initiative dubbed Geneva 2 that aims to end the two-year conflict by bringing rebels and regime representatives to the negotiating table.
While the regime has said it is willing to take part in Geneva 2, the opposition has said it will participate only when Hezbollah and Iranian forces withdrew from Syria.
Now, the rebels are "reluctant to go to Geneva. This is the worst time for them to sit at the negotiating table because they have less leverage today than they have had in months", said Dr Hamid.
Meanwhile, Malaeb said the regime is seeking to "cleanse key cities Aleppo, Damascus and Homs before any international conference is held".
Hezbollah's huge arsenal has long been funnelled to it from Shi'ite Iran via Syria, and its leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed days before the assault on Qusayr began that Mr Assad's regime would not be allowed to fall. "When Hassan Nasrallah says the fall of the Syrian regime cannot happen, it is carrying out an Iranian order," said Malaeb.
Experts agreed, however, that despite the army's takeover of Qusayr, the regime has a long way to go before it puts down a revolt that broke out in March 2011 and has cost more than 94,000 lives.
But Qusayr's fall will likely prolong the conflict and make any peaceful settlement more difficult.