For months, the Syrian Arab Army’s 67th Brigade of the 11th Tank Division and National Defence Forces (NDF) have seen themselves heavily embattled with Islamist rebels from Jabhat Al-Nusra (Syrian Al-Qaeda group) and Harakat Ahrar Al-Sham. However, it took until the beginning of 2016 before government troops could gradually push Islamist rebels back along the Orontes River which is situated south of the Hama-Salamiyah road. Thus, demoralized rebel fighters returned to the Homs pocket (green map area) at ar-Rastan and Talbisah which has been surrounded by government troops (red map area) for years.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Arab Army’s 120th Brigade of the 2nd Armored Division – in coordination with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and NDF of Homs – has also witnessed fierce clashes with ISIS fighters (black map area) at the Sadad-Maheen-Quraytayn axis during the past few months. Maheen has changed hands more than five times recently; however, since the 29th of December, it has been firmly under government control. In the meantime, ISIS has launched counter-offensives at Deir Ez-Zor and Palmyra. Effectively, the Syrian Army risks having its front line too thinly stretched as it must combat both Islamist rebels and ISIS fighters concurrently.
While ISIS officially severed ties with Syrian rebels in early 2014, the two parties have conveniently avoided each other on the battlefield. In fact, rebel factions and the Islamic State merely share front lines along a narrow corridor in northern Aleppo and southwestern Daraa with only sporadic clashes to follow. Meanwhile, the Syrian Arab Army has found itself heavily embattled with ISIS at Deir Ez-Zor, Palmyra & Qaryatyan, Aleppo, eastern Hama, northeastern Sweida and the Damascus suburbs of Yarmouk and Hajar al-Aswad.
In 2011 and 2012, Syrian rebels captured a large chunk of the Homs governorate including 2/3rds of the provincial capital. However, in 2013 and 2014 the Syrian government – heavily backed by Hezbollah – recaptured a string of towns inside Homs governorate; most notably Al-Qusayr, Talkalakh, Krak des Chevaliers and the city of Homs itself. However, 2015 spelled the loss of Palmyra and Qaryatyan to ISIS while government troops attempted to starve the Homs rebel pocket into submission.
If the Syrian Arab Army is to be victorious in central Syria they must capture the remaining Islamist rebel strongholds inside Homs governorate: that being Talbiseh, ar-Rastan and Kafr Laha. Furthermore, they must resist or expel hostile ISIS fighters at Palmyra and Qaryatyan. From the perspective of rebels inside Homs, it seems little other than a miracle or a diplomatic solution can save them from the onslaught of the Syrian Arab Army. Currently, their nearest rebel allies are more than 40 kilometers north at Lataminah (Hama).