On November 28, Syrian rebels in Idleb Province achieved a telling breakthrough in their war against the Assad regime. For the first time, the rebels succeeded in downing one of the dictator’s Russian-made MiG fighter jets.
This was the latest piece of bad news for Assad in a war which is no longer going his way. The stalemate that set in six months ago when it became clear that the regime no longer had the strength to reconquer areas held by the rebellion is now being broken.
But whereas six months ago the government forces hoped eventually to break the jam, it is now the rebellion which is conquering territory. The insurgents are slowly and inexorably driving the government troops back to the core areas that they must hold in order to survive.
The downing of the MiG fighter tops off a month that has brought only bad news for Bashar Assad. On November 20, 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 siege, netting 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 46th regiment headquarters was a major part of the supply line to this force, which is in danger of encirclement. Assad can no longer supply his forces in this city by road, because the rebels control points along the Damascus-Aleppo highway, most importantly the town of Maaret Numan. The fall of Aleppo city in its entirety now looks achievable. This would constitute a strategic blow to the dictator.
In addition, this month the insurgency 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 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.
On November 27, a helicopter gunship was downed west of Aleppo city. And then, the MiG fighter.
The rebellion now controls a swath of territory in the country’s north. The regime still has isolated strongholds in Aleppo and Idleb Provinces, but these are slowly being picked off by the rebels. There is a real possibility that in the first months of 2013 all of northern Syria will fall.
The city of Aleppo was the anvil on which the situation in Syria turned. When the government set out to regain control of the city in August, it still looked possible that the regime could prevail and defeat the insurgency. Its failure in Syria’s largest city means that this is no longer an option.
If the rebels complete the conquest of the north, they will then turn their attention to Damascus. The regime knows this, and is currently preparing new lines of defense. The top units of the government army are guarding the city. The 4th Armored Division of Maher Assad — brother of the president — is deployed in the capital, which now resembles a large armed camp.
Government forces are also building up their defenses in the western coastal area, the heartland of the Alawi sect to which the Assad family belongs.
The regime’s problem is manpower. It still has international support (from Russia, Iran, and China), money, and vastly superior weaponry to its opponents. But it lacks sufficient men willing to put themselves in harm’s way in its cause. As a result, it can no longer hope to reconquer the entirety of the country, and is pulling back to those areas which it must hold in order to survive.
The rebels, meanwhile, remain a deeply divided force.
There are now military councils for all the provinces of Syria. But there are also many units operating outside of this framework, including some of the most militarily effective ones. Groups such as the Salafi Jabhat al-Nusra and the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Liwa al Tawhid in Aleppo are Islamist forces which operate outside of the notional command structure of the Free Syrian Army.
The best organized, most determined, and most politically savvy groups in the rebel ranks — predictably — are the Islamists.
In late September, at a frontline position of the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo City, I interviewed Yasser al-Kirz, one of the leaders of the brigade. He was the only military leader of all those I met in Aleppo who was able to articulate a clear sense of what he wanted to build after the fall of the dictator.
What he wanted: “An Islamic state — but with protection for minorities.”
He was openly dismissive about the other so-called political leaders, who remained outside of the country. And his contempt was entirely understandable.
What all this means is that the Syrian regime is losing ground to an insurgency in which the most active and dynamic elements are those representing one or another form of Sunni Islamism.
In other words, in Syria as elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world: it is the old regimes — several of which have already fallen — or the Islamists. There appears to be no third alternative.