Assad Assaults Rebel 'Free Zones'

One of the signal, underreported achievements of the Syrian uprising over the last year was the establishment of a number of “liberated zones” from which the Assad regime, at least in visible form, was excluded. In these areas, the rebel flag (the pre-Baathist Syrian national flag) flew over public buildings. Fighters of the Free Syrian Army maintained roadblocks at the entry points to villages and towns. These “free zones” were the most visible sign of the regime’s decline in authority.

The regime of Bashar Assad is now attempting to roll back the gains made by the Syrian rebels and to retake the free zones. Following the brutal re-conquest of Homs, Assad’s armed forces have turned their attention to other centers of opposition activity. The attempt by the Syrian dictator is unlikely to succeed, but it has already extracted a heavy cost in the lives of civilians and oppositionists and is set to continue to do so.

In February, I spent a week in one of the liberated zones of Idleb province. It was a place of fierce but precarious hope. The FSA fighters I spoke with were aware that if international assistance for their revolt did not come, it was only a matter of time before the government forces moved to retake the areas they had liberated.

This moment has now come; the uneasy stalemate between the Assad regime and the free zones is over. The forces of the dictatorship are now attempting to reassert their authority throughout Syria.

The destruction of the Syrian liberated zones is clearly proceeding according to a well-ordered plan. After the recapture of Homs, the Syrian armed forces turned their attention to Idleb province. This area of northwest Syria was seen by many as constituting an ideal location for the establishment of a Syrian “Benghazi” or Northern Iraq -- that is, an internationally guaranteed safe zone in which a rebel army and an alternative political authority to the Assad regime could locate itself. Idleb is close to the border and of homogeneous Sunni Arab (and therefore anti-regime) population. Assad’s interest in re-taking Idleb was therefore obvious.

Idleb City, with a population of 150,000, fell to the regime forces earlier this week. Fierce guerrilla resistance, however, is continuing in parts of the province, in particular in the mountainous Jebel Zawiya area. The regime has now turned its attention to Deraa in the south, the birthplace of the uprising. The pattern is the same: a few days of artillery bombardment followed by the entry of troops and tanks.

Why is the counter-revolution launched by Bashar Assad likely to fail? First of all, this is not the first time that the regime has tried to use its military to crush centers of resistance. What has happened over the last year is that the armed forces focus on a particular area and kill large numbers of rebels, only for the uprising to re-emerge once the army moves on. The rebellion is too well-entrenched, the Syrian army too overstretched for the “security solution” favored by Assad to bring the results he seeks.