The protracted fighting in Syria is not happening within a bubble, amid reports of clandestine support for the Bashar al Assad regime from Hezbollah, Iran and Russia, and an ongoing effort to establish an international peace effort.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned at a press conference Friday that stability should remain a top priority for the region around Syria, which could be engulfed in conflict if the two-year-old civil war spins out of control. He chastised the Russian government for agreeing to sell advanced anti-ship missiles to the Syrian government, which seems at odds with that country's latest diplomatic dialogue with the U.S.
Russia committed to work with Secretary of State John Kerry during his recent visit there to organize a peace summit in Geneva this summer. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says that any peace summit must include Iran, which he says has played a direct role in the fighting in Syria.
"If we admit that Iran has a very solid influence on what is going on, then it is obliged to be represented in the negotiations as a participant in the 'external ring' [of Syria's neighboring states]," Lavrov said on Sunday, reports Press TV.
The Russian delegation at a similar summit last year refused to call for the ouster of Syrian President Assad, who said over the weekend that negotiations would likely fail.
"There is confusion in the world between a political solution and terrorism. They think a political conference will halt terrorists in the country. That is unrealistic," he told the newspaper Clarin, according to a Reuters report.
Iran and Russia are not the only outside powers that appear to have a hand in the Syrian government's recent surge against the rebel forces. The Associated Press reported Monday that 28 Hezbollah fighters died and roughly 70 were injured in the Syrian town of Qusair near Homs and the Lebanese border. The Shiite militant Lebanese political party is an historic ally of the Assad regime and receives support from Iran.
President Barack Obama spoke with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman by phone on Monday, about what Obama calls "Hizballah's active and growing role in Syria, fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, which is counter to the Lebanese government's policies."
"The two leaders agreed that all parties should respect Lebanon's policy of disassociation from the conflict in Syria and avoid actions that will involve the Lebanese people in the conflict," according to a statement from the White House.
Hezbollah's involvement also indicates the fighting in Syria is becoming more deeply sectarian, says the AP. The rebellion, which began in March 2011, is largely driven by the Sunni majority in Syria.
This fight for Qusair represents the larger battle between the rebels and the regime, as Assad's forces fight to gain control of a route to the coastal region controlled by the loyalist Alawite religious group. This will likely be where Assad retreats if he is forced from Damascus.
"He desperately needs to keep Homs open," says Dan Layman, head of media relations for the Syrian Support Group. "Qusair is a big, big deal."
The regime has regained control of roughly 60 percent of the town, putting a strangle hold on supplies and additional manpower for the rebel fighters. Assad, too, likely sees this as a lifeline.
"He sees the writing on the wall that things are going badly for him, so he'll be drastically changing in the next six months," Layman says, adding that it will be very difficult to regain control if Qusair falls to Assad. "If Qusair is taken back by the regime, it's going to be a huge morale blow [for the opposition]."
The regime's recent success in and around Qusair and Homs is due largely to support from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, according to private security firm Stratfor.
"Hezbollah has long been involved in the fight over Homs, but the May 19 offensive marks a clear escalation in Hezbollah's involvement," it says in a report released Monday. "Tensions in Lebanon have grown alongside this increased involvement. For example, rebels struck the Lebanese town of Hermel with rocket artillery on May 19. And the anger Lebanese Sunnis feel toward Hezbollah threatens to spill over into a full-blown armed conflict."
Iran and Russia also continue to deliver much-needed supplies to the Assad regime, including supplies for its air force which it uses to deploy cluster bombs and other ordnance against the rebels.
"External help also enabled Syria to create a new militia, known as the National Defense Force, to offset the losses incurred by the army," Stratfor says. "With the help of Iranian and Hezbollah advisers, the regime was able to rapidly train and deploy members of this militia."
"Over the past few months, fighting has regressed to battles of exhaustion and campaigns of attrition," Stratfor adds. "Instances where the rebels could quickly seize a major city in only a few days -- as they did in Raqqa -- are the exception rather than the norm."