Syrian rebels are making significant advances in their battle against government forces, raising new questions about President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to hold on to power and adding urgency to the quest by the international community for a unified and effective political opposition that could take control should his regime collapse.
In the past week, the rebels have seized five important military facilities in the north, the east and near the capital, Damascus, capturing sizable quantities of weaponry, further isolating remaining government positions and freeing opposition fighters to focus on attacking Assad’s forces.
None of the battles alone represented the kind of decisive military victory that the rebels need if they are to claim control of an entire city or province and prod the international community for greater support. The rebels, most of them grouped loosely under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, have not demonstrated the capacity to capture any of the country’s major cities, and whether they will ever be in a position to dislodge the regime from the heavily guarded capital without help is in question.
Taken together, however, the gains underscore the steadily growing effectiveness of the rebel force and the accelerating erosion of what had once been one of the region’s most powerful armies, now severely depleted and on the defensive along almost all of the country’s many battle fronts.
The fighting is piecemeal, intense and likely to persist for many more months as regime troops and rebel fighters battle it out town by town and base by base across the vast swaths of the country that are being contested. But no longer is it possible to describe the war in Syria as a stalemate, said Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the pace of rebel gains in recent weeks raises the prospect that a collapse of government forces could come sooner than has been expected.
“The war is turning against the regime, and it’s turning at a faster rate than we had seen before,” White said. “There’s a reasonable chance there will be some kind of breaking point, and the regime will collapse in a hurry. It’s not probable, but it’s possible, and then the guys with the guns will be in charge.”
Putting a timeline on the regime’s likely demise is impossible, analysts say, in part because so many other variables are in play, from the state of the Syrian economy to the prospect that the government could resort to the use of even greater force, including its arsenal of chemical weapons.
It is even possible that the regime may survive, said Charles Lister of the IHS Jane’s defense consulting firm, based in London. “Taking a longer-term view, you can’t look at an asymmetric conflict and determine whether there is going to be a winning side, and I don’t think we are near the end of the Syrian revolution yet,” he said.
But there seems to be little doubt that the momentum is shifting to the rebels’ advantage, said Joseph Holliday of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, and that in itself is having a cumulative effect on the battlefield. Each new base that falls yields new stashes of weaponry, and as larger bases are overrun, the quality of those weapons also is increasing.Videos released after the capture last week of Base 46, a major facility to the west of Aleppo, showed fighters acquiring tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and surface-to-air missiles as well as large quantities of ammunition.
In a video released overnight Saturday of the assault on the Marj al-Sultan air base outside Damascus, fighters are seen using a tank to storm the perimeter. They claim to have destroyed eight aircraft, including three helicopters and two MiG fighter jets, contributing to the slow depletion of the air force on which the regime has increasingly relied to remain in the fight in areas from which its ground forces have been ejected.
Meanwhile, the government’s ability to resupply and reinforce its far-flung bases is diminishing, as evidenced by the recent captures, and it has not launched a significant offensive to retake ground since August. Even in the suburbs of Damascus, where a government push in the summer appeared to have forced the rebels into retreat, the tide is turning again, and the fighting is inching back toward the edges of the city.
The advances are boosting confidence among rebel fighters that they will soon be able to topple Assad without the international assistance they have long sought. The Free Syrian Army is capable of retaking major cities but is refraining from doing so because that would invite the kind of devastating artillery fire and airstrikes that have caused heavy civilian casualties in many of the areas they have seized, said Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay Miqdad.
In what appears to have been one such act of retaliation, a warplane on Sunday dropped cluster bombs on a playground near the Marj al-Sultan air base overrun the night before, killing 10 children and injuring many more, activists in Damascus asserted. Videos posted online showed the bloodied bodies of several children and fragments of bomblets in a yard.
The rebels’ current strategy is to focus on seizing the bases from which the bombardments and air raids are launched, before turning their attention to the cities, Miqdad said. Acquiring the sophisticated antitank and antiaircraft weapons the rebels want from the outside world would speed up the battle but not alter its conclusion, he said.
“We can do the job, but if we finish it by our own hands, it will take more time and cost more blood,” he said, speaking from the Turkish-Syrian border. “We need those weapons to finish it faster.”
That confidence may be misplaced, analysts say. The strength of the army, once put at 250,000, has probably dwindled to little more than 100,000, owing to casualties and desertions, White said. But Assad’s army still outnumbers and outguns a rebel force estimated to consist of 40,000 to 60,000 men. And the regime has weaponry it has not yet used, including missiles and long-range artillery.
The risk that the rebels’ military gains will outpace the international community’s ability to respond to a sudden shift in the balance of power in the strategically vital country is nonetheless growing with each base that falls, said Amr al-Azm, a professor of history at Ohio’s Shawnee State University, who supports the opposition. The new coalition of opposition forces launched this month in Doha, Qatar, with the support of the United States, has not identified its members and has yet to win the support of military groups on the ground, leaving it unclear whether the coalition will be able to present a united front and fill the vacuum should the regime fall, he said.