IN A war which neither side is decisively winning, small victories are much vaunted. The rebels seeking to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Assad have been cheered by a rash of bombings of security headquarters in Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo, the second city, including on October 9th a building that houses the air-force intelligence centre in the capital. Bolstered by their success at taking an increasing number of border crossings with Turkey, the rebels have made small but steady advances on the ground, especially in the north-west. Most recently they have forced the regime to abandon a string of checkpoints in and around Marat Numan, a town in Idleb province that straddles the main Damascus-Aleppo road. Rebels in this area control swathes of land up to the border with Turkey.
At the end of last month the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the rebels’ proclaimed umbrella organisation, moved its headquarters from Turkey into Syria. The Farouq brigades, one of the largest rebel groups in the country, have now set their eyes on Raqqa, a hitherto relatively quiet northern province to the east of Aleppo.
Greater efforts are being made to build a rebel front and to unify local commands in particular cities and provinces. Last month, for instance, the Aleppo Military Council said it had brought a variety of fighting groups in the city under its control.
Meanwhile, there are signs of discord in the Assads’ ruling circle and the minority Alawite sect from which the family hails. Clashes have broken out between Alawite families in Qardaha, the Assads’ home town. Mr Assad’s influential sister Bushra, whose husband, Asef Shawkat, a deputy defence minister, was killed by a bomb on July 18th, is said to have fled to Dubai.
Yet for every rebel success, the regime can still claim one of its own. Though the rebels hold much of the countryside, the army is continuing to hammer Homs, Syria’s third city, pressing into the rebellious district of Khaldiya. Mr Assad’s forces have also pushed back into districts of Aleppo where street-by-street battles have raged since July. The regime’s bulldozers have flattened a rebel section of Hama, Syria’s fourth city, now mainly back in Mr Assad’s hands. The Syrian air force is pulverising with impunity villages and towns thought to be sympathetic to the rebels. The rate of defections from the army has slowed.
Rebel leaders concede that they may have been premature in sending their fighters to attack the regime’s forces in Damascus and Aleppo. Crimes by the rebels, some of whom have killed captives in cold blood, has become commoner. Salafist and jihadist groups, espousing a more sectarian attitude to the conflict, have become more prominent, causing unease among the rebels. Suicide-bombings, such as one on October 9th claimed by Jabhat an-Nusra, the most prominent jihadist group, have become more frequent. Civilians who at first had no truck with the Assad regime have become warier of the rebels. There has been less sign recently that civilian and military loyalties are shifting decisively in the rebels’ favour.
In Aleppo, as in other cities, numerous brigades, as the rebels’ various fighting groups are called, remain outside any overall command. Louay Sakka, a member of the Washington-based Syrian Support Group that backs the rebel groups, says that further unification is unlikely until the rebels’ foreign backers, mainly in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, decide to channel their funds through designated regional military councils, which might then be better able to draw smaller groups into a single command.
The war is threatening to spill across borders. Turkey and Syria have exchanged artillery fire daily since October 3rd, when a mortar, presumed to have been fired by Syrian troops on their side of the border, killed five Turkish citizens in the nearby Turkish village of Akcakale. On October 10th Turkish aircraft forced down an overflying Syrian Airbus suspected of carrying military equipment from Russia. Lebanon is getting twitchier, too. Hizbullah, its Shia party-cum-militia, has admitted that one of its commanders, Ali Hussein Nassif, died fighting for the Assad regime in Homs. Syrian rebels have threatened to attack the Shias’ southern suburb of Beirut.
Mr Assad may take solace in the continuing reluctance of any of the governments that want to topple him, including Turkey, the United States and the Gulf monarchies, in particular Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to intervene with direct military force. This has prompted another round of so far fruitless diplomacy. A regional quartet that had been heralded as a possible mediating body, consisting of Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, has fallen apart. Turkey’s suggestion that Farouq al-Shara, Syria’s vice-president, should head a transitional government without Mr Assad, has fallen on deaf ears. The UN’s envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who replaced Kofi Annan in August, has so far made no headway. For the time being, a bloody stalemate prevails.