"A YEAR ago, following a string of victories, Syria’s rebels fought their way so close to the capital, Damascus, that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime appeared doomed.Many commentators predicted his fall within days; others gave him only weeks to survive. Yet 12 months later the tide has turned dramatically in favour of the Syrian president, who has outmanoeuvred his opponents both at home and abroad.
In the past few days, a string of villages and towns in the strategically important Qalamoun region have fallen to government forces — among them the Christian town of Maaloula, ... Homs, once known as “the capital of the revolution”, is on the verge of falling to a Syrian army offensive.... Assad predicted that the main battles could be over by the end of the year. “This is a turning point in the crisis,” he predicted.
Assad’s closest ally, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, went further, saying the Syrian leader no longer faced the prospect of being overthrown.
What has changed in the course of the year? Based on extensive interviews with senior sources close to Hezbollah’s military command in Syria and briefings from high-ranking army officers, I am convinced the answer lies in the decision by Nasrallah and Assad to throw Hezbollah into the fray, thus changing the course of the war....
There was further danger to Hezbollah as jihadist rebels began to discuss the prospect of extending their holy war to Lebanon. This would have put them in a powerful position to strangle the group by severing its supply lines from Syria. As a source close to Hezbollah described it to me recently: “Syria is Hezbollah’s lungs.” He added: “It doesn’t matter how many weapons Hezbollah keeps in Lebanon. In any war with Israel, their stocks would be depleted. Resupply is vital.”
By early last year, 70% of Syria’s territory had slipped from Assad’s control.... Assad had been leaning heavily on the advice of his generals, who were trained in conventional warfare, and were ill-suited to a guerrilla struggle. It was time for a wholesale change of tactics, he decided, and that could come only from Hezbollah.
Nasrallah went to Tehran to seek religious guidance from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who gave his blessing to sending fighters. Khamenei said it was a religious obligation to fight the jihadist rebels.
Nasrallah’s military advisers insisted that Syria’s army, reinforced by his men, had to go on the offensive. With the backing of Russia and Iran, a strategy was formulated to drive the rebels out of Damascus and win back control of the strategic corridor that links the Syrian capital to the Mediterranean coast.
Initially Hezbollah said its intervention would be confined to retaking the Syrian border city of Qusair and defending the Lebanese villages bordering Syria.
But Hezbollah’s fighters had underestimated their enemy. They soon found themselves in danger of being bottled up by rebel forces and realised they needed to capture far more territory than they had envisaged. This was now a full-scale war for them.
First, Qusair had to be taken in order to block the flow of rebels and weapons from Lebanon into rebel-held Homs.
Hezbollah sent several thousand fighters to the front while the Syrian army provided artillery and air support. In a sign of how closely they were now working together, Hezbollah was granted access to Syria’s military command operations centre for the first time.
Qusair proved a vital learning curve for Hezbollah, fighting far from its own terrain. The organisation was taken by surprise by the rebels’ prowess. In the first few days of battle, it took heavy casualties and was forced to regroup and change tactics.
After three weeks of heavy fighting, in which much of the town was destroyed by shell and rocket fire, Qusair was finally taken back into the hands of the regime last June.
The scale and ferocity of the battle persuaded Hezbollah’s commanders they needed to widen their strategic objectives. Homs, a rebel stronghold, had to be captured in order to choke off the rebels’ supply lines into Lebanon.
Today Homs no longer poses a threat to either Hezbollah or the regime, although it has a rump of rebel fighters, blamed for a car bomb outside a mosque on Friday that killed at least 14 people....
In the next stage of their plan, the Syrian army and Hezbollah moved their attention to Qalamoun, the region where it made significant gains last week.... Hezbollah fighters spearheaded the attack after the Syrian army had softened up the rebels by pounding their positions with artillery, rocket launchers and mortars...
Despite the triumphs at Maaloula and Qalamoun, an all-out victory for Assad is still far from assured. Rebel brigades have made significant inroads in the north in recent weeks. Last month they captured Kassab, the sole remaining government-controlled border post with Turkey, cementing their hold on Syria’s northern border.
Though Kassab has little strategic importance, the well co-ordinated attack appears to have taken Assad’s military by surprise...Despite the setbacks, Hezbollah has emerged as a bigger and more influential player in the region as a result of its intervention..."