Rebels have abandoned Homs after a long fight that left the city in ruins:
More than four years of relentless shelling and shooting have ravaged beyond recognition this city, which once served as the symbolic capital of the revolution.
The buildings hang in tatters, concrete floors collapsed like sandcastles, twisted reinforced metal bars and window frames creaking in the wind like weather vanes. The only humans are occasional military guards, huddling in the foundations of stripped buildings. Deep trenches have been dug in thoroughfares to expose rebel tunnels. Everywhere the guts of buildings and homes face the street, their private contents slowly melting in the elements. Ten-foot weeds have erupted through the concrete.
As far as the government of Syria is concerned, the war in Homs is over. Rebel factions were defeated more than a year ago in the Old City, and the last holdouts, who carried on the revolt from the suburb of al-Waer, signed a cease-fire agreement this month. A few weeks before Christmas, busloads of fighters quit al-Waer for rebel-held villages to the north, under what the Syrian government and the United Nations hailed as a breakthrough cease-fire agreement to bring peace to one of the Syrian war’s most symbolic battlefields.
The Assad government has a long way to go to repeat this victory across Syria and regain control of the country. Assad's reach to inflict this kind of punishment is still limited to the western portion of the country. Russia can provide air support and weapons. Iran can provide money and a Shia foreign legion (including Hezbollah under orders from Tehran) to be the shock troops for Assad.
But who will provide the large numbers of troops from his small base of support--after enormous casualties so far--needed to conquer and police the entire country?
Perhaps Assad can kill enough people to grind them into submission (or flight abroad). But if Assad cannot expand his ground power to the entire country, the example of the destruction of Homs may simply make those beyond Assad's reach for the Homs treatment determined to win:
The rebels, of course, take a different lesson: Assad will annihilate any opposition he can, unless the rebels fight hard and long enough to win, secure an enclave, or, at the very least, force the government to allow safe passage to another rebel-held area. Only force can extract concessions from the state.
At best, Homs becomes a bastion in the easternmost Core Syria that Assad tries to hold with the troops he has available from his small base of support.
This bolsters the effort to cling to the western part of Syria:
Two thousand Syrian Islamist fighters are expected to be evacuated soon from besieged, rebel-held areas of southern Damascus in a deal brokered by the United Nations, a Hezbollah TV station said on Friday.
The deal marks a success for the government of President Bashar al-Assad, increasing its chances of reasserting control over a strategic area just 4 km (2.5 miles) south of the center of the capital.
At worst, the destruction of cities convinces rebels they have to crush Assad or flee Syria completely, since the government can't be trusted not to seek revenge after the fight is called off.