Last week's surrender by opposition forces of their remaining foothold in the old city of Homs once again focused attention on the devastation wrought by three years of conflict on Syria. Pictures of the damage inflicted on the old city are reminiscent of World War II, and with each passing day it becomes more difficult to divine an end point for the stalemated conflict.
We should not read too much into what the opposition withdrawal from Homs means for the wider Syrian conflict. In a protracted conflict such as this, each side attempts to maximise the significance of its tactical victories and to downplay the successes of the other. The opposition lost control of Homs a long time ago so the evacuation was simply the coup de grace and allowed the evacuation of several hundred fighters back into rebel ranks. Still, Homs was considered by some as the cradle of the revolution and its loss by the opposition has handed a significant symbolic victory to the regime ahead of the 3 June elections. The Syrian Government was quick to allow residents back into the devastated old city as a sign that the government was back in control.
The opposition attempted to take the gloss off the regime's reassertion of control over Homs by staging a spectacular demolition of a government controlled hotel in Aleppo; the film of the explosion was quickly distributed to compete with the images of its fighters leaving Homs on buses. Given that the hotel had allegedly been heavily damaged in a similar attack in February this year, the tactical significance of last week's attack is minimal. Initial opposition claims that it was a Syrian military headquarters have been downgraded to claims that it was sleeping quarters for soldiers or a base for snipers as the days passed. This attack was for the cameras more than for tactical advantage. The narrative vs counter-narrative battle is in many ways just as important as the battlefield operations, particularly when the Syrian Opposition Coalition is in Washington trying to convince the US to trust it with advanced weaponry.
Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the Homs evacuation was the role played by Iran and Russia in securing the deal, something acknowledged by the UN. Iran had a vested interest, given reports that part of the agreement allowed for the release of Iranian (and Hizbullah) fighters held by the opposition forces. Claims of Russian involvement once again show how deft Moscow has been in dealing with the Syrian issue compared to the West. Mind you, its task is relatively easy compared to that of the West: Moscow has a single client to deal with and a domestic population that appears supportive of Russia's increasingly bearish foreign policy.
There has been some talk of Homs simply being the latest in a series of localised ceasefires that may build some kind of momentum for more and allow a breathing space for meaningful negotiations. On the face of it, this makes sense as a way of stopping the fighting without either side having to concede defeat. But such an arrangement only ever favours the regime and normally comes after the government has battered the local residents and fighters into submission. The opposition realises this, and is aware of the risk that they could be 'defeated in detail' if localised truces were to become more widespread. It would allow the Syrian Government to concentrate its forces in far fewer areas. Once again, the opposition only has itself to blame for this predicament. The Assad regime has maintained a unity that has eluded the opposition, and without centralised control of truce arrangements, government forces are able to exploit local conditions to establish agreements that suit their purposes.
Homs is unlikely to presage a broader move towards negotiated ceasefires. It has however provided the Assad regime with a symbolic victory, and will undoubtedly be featured heavily in Syrian media during the 3 June election as an example of a return to normalcy. In reality, however, normalcy is very much a distant memory.