BEIRUT — After watching much of Syria's territory slip into rebel hands, President Bashar Assad's regime is focusing on the basics: shoring up its hold on Damascus and the strip of land connecting the capital with the Mediterranean coast.
In the past week, government troops have overrun villages near the Lebanese border and suburbs of Damascus, including two districts west of the capital where activists say regime forces killed more than 100 people. The advances have improved the regime's footing in strategic areas that are seen as crucial to its survival.
In many ways, Assad's government has little choice at this point in the civil war, analysts say. Rebels have captured much of northern and eastern Syria, seizing control of military bases, hydroelectric dams, border crossings and even a provincial capital. Those areas are home to most of the country's oil fields, and the losses have deprived the regime of badly needed cash and fuel for its war machine.
But those provinces — Raqqa, Hassakeh and Deir el-Zoura — are located hundreds of miles from the capital. Rebel advances there pose no direct threat to the regime's hold on Damascus — the ultimate prize in the civil war — and any effort to claw back the lost territory would demand manpower and military hardware, neither of which the regime is inclined to invest at the moment.
Instead, it has used its remaining airbases and military outposts in those areas to shell and bomb the territory it has lost in an attempt to forestall the opposition from establishing an interim administration in the rebel-held regions.
"What's important for the regime is not to leave any buffer zone, or any security zone for the rebels," said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who heads the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut.
While keeping the rebels off-balance in the lands it has lost, the regime at the same time has dedicated its resources to Damascus and securing what it widely believed to be Assad's Plan B — a retreat to the Mediterranean coastal region that is the heartland of his Alawite minority, which views its own survival as being tightly intertwined with that of the regime.
Key to that strategy is control of the corridor running from Damascus to the city of Homs and from there to the coast.
Fighting has flared in the Homs region in recent weeks as the government has pressed its campaign to stamp out rebel-held pockets in the area.
Much of the heaviest fighting has raged near the Lebanese border around the town of Qusair, southeast of Homs, where activists said government troops backed by gunmen linked to Lebanon's Lebanese Shiite militant Hezbollah group captured the villages of Radwineyeh and Tel al-Nabi Mando.Comment on this story
"The Qusair area is highly important," said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general and a senior lecturer at the American University of Beirut. "It is critical for Assad because this area is the backyard of Damascus. It is the link between Damascus, Homs and the coastal area, so he can ill afford to lose it."
As government troops have pursued rebels in the Qusair region, regime forces in and around Damascus have also moved against opposition-held suburbs, which anti-Assad fighters have tried to use as a springboard for forays into the capital itself.