News From the House of Slaughter

Jerusalem Post, 30/11/12

Rebels forge ahead in Syria; but no end to conflict in sight

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 prospect that northern Syria in its entirety 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 of another version of Sunni Islamism.

This is enabling the regime to maintain the core support 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.

The Free 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.

On November 20th, 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 month siege, and netted a large haul of weapons for the insurgency.

The ordnance 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 city.

The base was a major part of the supply line to this force, which is in danger of encirclement. The fall of Aleppo city in its entirety now looks achievable. This would constitute a strategic blow to Assad.

In 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.

The 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 Idleb province on Wednesday.

With the 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 capital. A ruthless regime counter-offensive crushed this attempt. All indications are that the months ahead will witness a second, perhaps more decisive attempt.

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 Damascus. 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 security positions.

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 war.

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 elusive.

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 the Jabhat al Nusra in Aleppo governates are among the most effective fighting groups. They are committed to Islamist ideologies – of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi type, 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 emerging.

In the north-east, Islamist gunmen are already colliding with the more secular-minded Kurdish communities of this area. A tense stand-off 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 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 the south – 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.

Finally, the rebellion itself is divided between local warlords, squabbling external leaders, and the most effective element – Sunni Islamist militias.

The bottom line: the rebellion is now forging ahead, the Assad regime shrinking. But with over 40,000 dead, there seems little imminent prospect for an end to the killing in Syria.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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