As the UN Supervision Mission in Syria ceases its activities, there are
indications that the Syrian rebels are beginning to gain the upper hand against
President Bashar Assad’s regime. The rebels have scored notable achievements
against government forces in recent days. There are corresponding signs of
growing demoralization among regime troops, and among those sections of the
population still supporting Assad.
The advantage in the civil war in
Syria has ebbed and flowed. The rebels began to establish “liberated zones” in
parts of the country around last October. In late February, the regime launched
a determined, bloody counterattack to reconquer these areas, and largely
achieved this in time for the “cease-fire” of April 10. With the cease-fire now
in tatters, the indications are that the momentum of the insurgency has picked
up again, and is now driving forward against the regime’s forces.
again, it is the central Syrian city of Homs that is the main focal
Government forces were massing outside of the city over the
weekend, apparently in preparation for a fresh assault. But as the troops
assembled to retake the urban center of Homs, it has become apparent that large
swathes of the surrounding countryside are no longer under government
A reporter for McClatchy Newspapers, embedded with Free Syrian
Army fighters in Homs governate, noted that the rebels have now expelled
government troops from the towns of Rastan and Talbiseh, north of Homs
The rebels are also battling for Qusayr, to the south of Homs. The
FSA unit engaged in this area is the Farouq Brigade, one of the best organized
of the free army formations.
An individual identified as a former captain
of Assad’s army captured by the FSA expressed his surprise at the rebels’
strength. “We didn’t imagine they had these numbers and so much equipment,’ he
Rebels also noted the increased use of attack helicopters
by regime forces, to avoid the necessity of engaging rebels on the
The A-Sharq al-Awsat Arabic newspaper is indicating a similar
direction to events.
The paper this week described a growing mood of
“restlessness and fear” among mid-level officers of Assad’s army.
noted a conviction spreading among many of Assad’s officers that the rebels must
prevail in the end, through sheer force of numbers. Officers quoted similarly
acknowledged that the rebel forces were larger and more organized than they had
expected. They dismissed the notion that the insurgents consisted merely of
“gangs,” as regime propaganda maintains.
One officer said: “There is a
new reality that we are feeling daily on the ground.
But the regime
refuses to recognize this.”
The spread of the violence into areas that
regime supporters had considered firmly under Assad’s control is increasing the
mood of despondency.
For a period, the capital managed to maintain an
appearance of near-normalcy.
No longer. In an underreported but
significant development, the rebels launched a series of coordinated attacks in
and around Damascus last Friday.
The neighborhood of Kfar Sousa, a
stronghold of anti-regime sentiment in the capital, was the scene of heavy
fighting. Large explosions were also heard in the Mazzah, Qudsiyeh and al-Qadam
The town of Douma, in the Damascus suburbs, also witnessed
clashes. Sources suggest that the eruption of the rebellion into urban Damascus
– for the first time – has removed the last vestiges of normalcy to which
pro-regime elements were clinging.
The fighting in the heart of the
capital, especially in Kafr Sousa, is seen by Damascenes as a major loss for the
government. Many members of the city’s upper middle class have left for
Damascus’s Old City is almost under curfew, with checkpoints at
all points of entry and exit.
All these indications are at root the
product of a significant increase in recent months in the abilities of the rebel
forces. This improvement is almost certainly the result of greater quantities of
Saudi and Qatari aid reaching the rebels, mostly across the border from Turkey.
There have been some intimations that US intelligence and special forces are
helping to direct this aid, though this has yet to be confirmed.
battle is not over yet, nor is it decided. But it is the rebels who now have the
initiative, and who are gaining ground.
The regime, meanwhile, appears to
be following a dual strategy. While maintaining a fortress-like hold on the
capital, and still seeking to reconquer urban centers held by the rebels, the
regime is also carving out an Alawite enclave in the northwest of the
Non-Alawites are being expelled from the designated area. This
area will form a safe zone and “baseline” for the regime, Assad hopes, in the
event of a long, protracted war.
It is not clear if this strategy will
succeed. But the very fact that it is being adopted shows that the regime is
seeking to reduce and consolidate its commitments, in the face of the widening
rebel assault upon it. The Syrian civil war is entering a new phase.