BEIRUT, Lebanon, July 22 (UPI) -- Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad are escalating their offensive to push rebel fighters out of the divided strategic city of Homs in the central region, indicating their much-touted drive against the northern city of Aleppo was a feint.
The strategic objective seems to be to drive a wedge between rebel forces in the north and south and consolidate the center of the country and the western border with Lebanon that connects Damascus to the coastal stronghold of Assad's minority Alawite sect.
This, regional military analysts believe, would constitute a defensible swath of territory, with access to resupply from Iran and Russia, that Assad would continue to rule as sovereign, internationally recognized Syrian territory.
What impact such a move would have on the conflict that's been raging for nearly 2 1/2 years is not exactly clear. But Assad could use it to seek to bolster his claim to legitimacy and that his regime continues to rule, blunting diplomatic efforts to persuade him to relinquish power.
That would be a body blow for Assad's badly fragmented opponents, who are even fighting among themselves these days, and it would likely force the United States and Europe to decide whether to start funneling arms to the rebels groups or call it a day.
In light of the Americans' failure to start arms shipments, even after Assad's forces recaptured the strategic rebel-held town of Qusair in western Syria in early June, the prospect they would do so as Assad's forces, heavily reinforced by his Lebanese ally the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, reassert themselves seems remote.
This would be a big boost for Tehran, which is determined to keep Assad's regime in power as its strategic gateway to the Levant and the Mediterranean.
"Washington still lacks strategic vision" when it comes to Syria, observed regional analyst Tony Badran. "In contrast, the Iranians are securing their interests, consolidating a protectorate in western Syria adjoined to their base in Lebanon."
After more than two years of rebel advances, the pendulum has swung the regime's way since its forces, spearheaded by Hezbollah veterans of the long war against Israel, took Qusair.
While Iranian advisers and Hezbollah have built up Assad's forces and given them a more effective offensive capability, the rebels have squandered their gains, not to mention international support, by fighting among themselves.
That's a weakness that could cost them dearly.
Assad's forces are able to exploit these differences along with Washington's failure to deliver promised weapons shipments being held up by U.S. lawmakers who fear the arms could end up with jihadist groups such as the al-Nusra Front, arguably the most effective rebel force.
The fighting in Homs, Syria's third-largest city 90 miles north of Damascus, is reported to be fierce. The Syrian army is reported to have made some advances in the battered city, the cradle of the uprising to topple Assad in March 2011, but rebel resistance is said to be intense.
However, the rebels are reported to be running low on ammunition, and resorting to suicide attacks on the advancing regime forces, which might suggest that another Assad victory is within reach amid a fierce artillery and air bombardment of rebel positions.
Some rebels have reportedly sneaked out of the city because they have no weapons to carry on the fight.
After Assad's troops took Qusair, the word was that the regime's next target was Aleppo in the north, where rebels hold much of the city. In June, regime officials even announced the start of "Operation Northern Storm" aimed at overrunning the city.
But no major offensive took place there. "The Aleppo operation may have been a feint all along," drawing rebel forces away from Homs, Badran cautioned.
"A major operation in northern Syria was never the logical move after Qusair. The real, strategically coherent next step always was in Homs and Damascus and their countryside along the border with Lebanon."
This is just where regime forces and Hezbollah, whose fighters have become Assad's shock troops have been concentrating, seizing small towns and villages, and where they're likely to continue doing so in the months ahead.
Consolidating the western region south to the outskirts of Damascus, where the rebels hold several districts, and the corridor all the way to the Alawite heartland in the northwest appears to be regime's primary objective.