Fall of rebel stronghold could hasten Syrian ceasefire


THE LIKELY fall of the rebel stronghold in Homs and the suggestion that Turkey and the expatriate opposition could compromise on a transitional regime could be game changers in Syria and encourage UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to press for a ceasefire.

Rebel commanders in Homs yesterday pleaded for weaponry to repel the advance of government forces that had reportedly recaptured 75 per cent of the city. The loss of Homs, the largest city in the country’s centre, would be a major strategic reverse for the rebels and could encourage the Syrian army to launch fresh offensives in Aleppo and other contested areas.

The western-backed expatriate Syrian National Council has said it is prepared to discuss Ankara’s proposal that former regime members could take part in a future government and that current vice-president Farouk al-Sharaa could serve as leader of a transitional government. This amounts to a major shift in the council stance, which has called for the removal of the Assad regime and supported the militarisation of the conflict and external intervention.

Syrian domestic opposition groups, which reject armed rebellion and external involvement, were the first to name Mr Sharaa as a potential transitional figure. Therefore, if the council accepts this proposition during a coming meeting in Qatar, this would bridge one of the gaps between the external and internal opposition.

These two developments did not take place in a vacuum. Syrian army shelling of Turkish towns and countryside during clashes with rebels and Turkish return fire have alerted Ankara to the danger of being drawn into the conflict, a risk the majority of Turks do not want to to take.

The increasing flow of refugees into Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon has led UN agencies to predict that that number could reach 300,000 by year’s end. The burden of caring for these refugees is becoming too heavy for these countries to bear, while the international community is reluctant to supply funds to provide for another group of long-term refugees.

Defections from the Syrian army to the rebel forces are dwindling, while there has been an influx of foreign Sunni militants, some allied to al-Qaeda, raising concerns among western powers providing aid to rebels.

The US has, reportedly, asked Saudi Arabia and Qatar not to transfer heavy weapons, fearing they could fall into the hands of militants opposed to the west. Without heavy arms the rebels cannot win.

Finally, the war of attrition being waged by both sides has alienated the populace. Internally, the displaced complain they are being harried by the fighting and curse both sides. Last week, residents of Raqqa, east of Aleppo, and the tens of thousands of internally displaced people sheltering there begged rebels to call off an offensive against government forces in the town.

Residents of Aleppo, angered over the destruction wrought by the recent rebel offensive and caught in the crossfire, have adopted an anti-rebel stance, arguing that by entering the city rebels are attracting a harsh response from the regime.