In the large slaughterhouse that Syria has become, a new phase is opening up.
The stalemate that held for most of 2012 between the forces of the Assad regime
and the insurgency against it no longer exists. Rather, the rebels are making
slow and steady gains. There is a real possibility that all of northern Syria
will fall to the rebellion in the coming months.
Yet while the rebels are
pushing back the beleaguered forces of Assad, no unified leadership of the
insurgency has yet come into being. Predictably, the best organized and most
politically sophisticated elements among the insurgents are those identifying
with one version or another of Sunni Islamism.
This is enabling the
regime to maintain the core support of members of the Syrian Alawi community,
who rightly fear what awaits them in the event of a rebel victory. It is also
creating tensions between elements of the rebellion and the inhabitants of the
Kurdish north-eastern part of Syria, where there is little enthusiasm either for
Islamism or for a strong new centralized government in Damascus.
Syrian Army and its allies are currently in the process of snuffing out
remaining pockets of regime strength in the north of the country. This is an
arduous and sometimes costly business, but its end is not in doubt.
November 20, rebels captured the headquarters of the 46th regiment 25 kilometers
west of Aleppo city. The capture of the base brought an end to a 50-day siege
and netted a large haul of weapons for the insurgency.
captured at the base included heavy artillery cannons, rocket launchers, a
number of tanks, mortars and rifles. The fall of the base is also a blow to the
beleaguered government force still holding parts of western Aleppo
The base was a major part of the supply line to this force, which
is in danger of encirclement.
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The fall of Aleppo city in its entirety now
looks achievable. This would constitute a strategic blow to Assad.
addition, the insurgency this month captured al-Hamdan airbase in Deir Ez-Zor
province, close to the border with Iraq. The fall of this base leaves the regime
with only one major airfield in northern Syria. Since domination of the air is
the main advantage remaining to the regime, this constitutes another significant
blow. Control of the Hamdan base also strengthens the rebels’ domination of the city of Abu Kamal, along the border.
In recent days, the FSA also claims
to have captured the Tishrin dam, along the Euphrates river close to the Iraqi
border, and two oil facilities in Deir Ez-Zor governate.
anti-aircraft capacity of the rebels is improving. Two military aircraft were
downed in northern Syria this week – a helicopter gunship west of Aleppo on
Tuesday and a fighter jet over Idlib province on Wednesday.
strategic direction of events in the north now clear, attention is turning
toward the battle for Damascus.
The rebels have already failed once – in
August of this year – in their attempt to bring the fighting to the
A ruthless regime counter- offensive crushed this attempt. All
indications are that the months ahead will witness a second, perhaps more
The FSA is already claiming to have captured the Marj
al- Sultan airbase outside the city and an anti-aircraft post at Saida Zeinab in
Regional media reports suggest that the rebellion is now
channelling fighters southwards.
The regime, meanwhile, also appears to
be preparing for the next phase of the civil war. Assad’s forces are currently
fortifying the western coastal region – the heartland of the Alawi sect that
forms the bedrock of remaining support for the regime. The capital city itself
has in recent months been turned into a fortress, filled with checkpoints and
Iranian personnel have been sighted in the coastal
area. This is set to form a redoubt for the regime in the next phase of the
But as preparations for the battle of Damascus take place on both
sides, the rebellion remains both militarily and politically divided. Efforts to
produce a single military command for the insurgents have proved
Much hope was placed in the military councils established across
the country earlier this year. But key fighting units remain outside of the
control of the councils.
Forces such as the Liwa al Tawhid and Jabhat al
Nusra in Aleppo governates are among the most effective fighting groups. They
are committed to Islamist ideologies – Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi,
respectively. They remain outside of the framework of the military council and
in uneasy coexistence with it.
The new external political leadership
recently established in Doha, meanwhile, has secured the support of a number of
Western governments but has little or no apparent standing within Syria itself.
On the ground, in the regime-free areas, a patchwork of areas of influence,
controlled by local strongmen and Islamist militia leaders is
In the north-east, Islamist gunmen are already colliding with
the more secularminded Kurdish communities of this area. A tense standoff is
under way in the town of Ras al Ain, between the Salafi fighters of the Jabhat
al Nusra and forces loyal to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). This
began after the Islamists drove the regime army from the town and then tried to
impose their own ways on the area.
Where is all this headed? The Assad
regime may be retreating to new defensive lines, but this does not mean that it
is finished – yet.
Alawi areas in the western coastal area could continue
to fight on even after the loss of Damascus – and in any case the battle for the
south still has to be engaged.
If the Sunni Arab rebels defeat Assad in
Damascus, they are likely to face the additional task of trying to re-conquer
the Kurdish north-east of the country against a well-armed population that buys
into neither Islamic nor Arab definitions of Syria.
rebellion itself is divided between local warlords, squabbling external leaders,
and the most effective element – Sunni Islamist militias.
line: the rebellion is now forging ahead, the Assad regime shrinking.
with over 40,000 dead, there seems little imminent prospect for an end to the
killing in Syria.
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