Dr. Jonathan Spyer, senior fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, recently visited Syria and traveled in rebel-held territory. Here are his observations, given in an interview with PJ Media Middle East Editor Barry Rubin.
– This is your second trip to Syria to observe what’s happening there. How have things changed since your earlier trip?
The first and most immediately noticeable change was that in the northern governates of Aleppo and Idleb, the Assad regime no longer really exists on the ground. In February, making the border crossing from Turkey was potentially quite dangerous because the Syrian regime troops were still patrolling across the border. And the rebels in Idleb travelled only at night, avoiding the main roads and using side roads and smugglers’ tracks to reach the various towns over which they exercised a precarious control.
Today, because of a lack of reliable manpower and rebel harassment, the regime has abandoned these areas and the rebels are in full control on the ground. The Free Syrian Army now operates the border crossing at Bab el Salam in cooperation with the Turks. The FSA operates checkpoints at regular intervals all the way from the border to the entrance to Aleppo city, two hours drive to the south. Only in the city itself is the regime still deployed on the ground. So this is a very notable difference.
One should qualify this picture, however, by noting that the regime still has 100% control of the airspace above these areas and uses this to carry out air raids on both FSA and civilians in this area. The regime army also still holds a number of isolated positions in Aleppo governate, including a military airfield and an officers’ training facility.
– Please describe the situation in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. How important are the Salafist groups, how well are they organized, and from where are they getting their weapons?
The media has paid great attention to the Salafi jihadi groups fighting in Aleppo city, but in my view they are of only secondary importance both militarily and politically. The most significant of the Salafi-oriented groups is the Ahrar al Sham organization, which is backed by Saudi Arabia. This group is quite visible at significant points in rebel-held parts of the city. They are very visibly Salafi, both in their mode of dress and in the black, white, and green Koranic banners which fly over their positions instead of the Syrian rebel flag. They are thought to receive arms and support from the Saudis. But they are not particularly noted for their military effectiveness.