As the UN Observer Mission in Syria ceases its activities, there are indications that the Syrian rebels are beginning to gain the upper hand against the Assad 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 from around last October. In late February, the regime launched a determined, bloody counter-attack to re-conquer these areas, and largely achieved this in time for the ‘ceasefire’ of April 10. With the ceasefire 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.
Once again, it is the central Syrian city of Homs which is the main focal point. Government forces were massing outside of the city over the weekend, apparently in preparation for a fresh assault. But as the troops assembled to re-take the urban center of Homs, it has become apparent that large swathes of the surrounding countryside are no longer under government control.
A reporter for Mcclatchy News, 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 city. 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 told McClatchy.
Rebels also noted an increased use by regime forces of attack helicopters, in order to avoid the necessity of engaging rebels on the ground.
The Arabic Sharq al-Awsat 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.
It 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 expressed acknowledgement 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 that “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 which regime supporters had considered firmly under Assad’s control is increasing the mood of despondency.
For a period, the Syrian capital Damascus managed to maintain an appearance of near-normality. No longer. In an under-reported but significant development, the rebels launched a series of coordinated attacks in and around the city last Friday.
The neighborhood of Kfar Soussa, a stronghold of anti-regime sentiment in Damascus, was the scene of heavy fighting. Large explosions were also heard in the Mazzah, Qudsiyeh and al-Qadam neighborhoods.
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 normality to which pro-regime elements were clinging.
The fighting in the heart of Damascus, especially in Kafr Soussa, is seen by Damascenes as a major loss for the government. Many members of the city’s upper middle class have left for abroad. 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 suggestions of US intelligence and special forces engaging in helping to direct this aid, though this has yet to be confirmed.
The battle is not over, nor is it yet 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 re-conquer urban centers held by the rebels, the regime is also carving out an Alawi enclave in the north-west of the country. Non-Alawis 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.