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.

In both Homs and Idleb, the Free Syrian Army has avoided heroic last stands in urban areas. Rather, the bulk of the fighters leave before the army makes its final assault. This has the unfortunate side-effect of leaving the civilian population more or less defenseless when the army and the “Shabiha” Alawi paramilitaries enter, but it reflects sensible guerrilla strategy. The FSA is aware that it cannot hope to prevail against Assad’s forces in a straight, head-on clash. It thus prefers to conserve its resources, and to harass the army and the Shabiha in the countryside.


What all this adds up to is prolonged civil war. Since the “international community” appears to be indifferent to the fate of the people of Syria, no early resolution of the crisis can be expected. The rebellion still lacks a coherent strategy for toppling the Assad regime, and is too weak to do so without external aid. But the counter-revolution now under way also shows that the regime lacks any clear plan.

The Assad regime entirely lacks legitimacy, at least outside of the Alawi population of Syria which constitutes 12% of the total. This means that the only tool available to it is force. So when force appears not to deliver the desired results, its only recourse is to apply more force. And it isn’t working. In Homs and Idleb provinces, the FSA has survived the government onslaught and is operating in the countryside. In Latakia, Aleppo, Hama, Hassakeh, Qamishli, and Damascus itself, demonstrations are continuing.

A formidable international coalition is currently assembled behind the Assad regime. It consists of Russia, Iran, China, and Hizballah. The rebels, meanwhile, currently have only Kofi Annan. In spite of this, and in spite of the massacres and the bloody repression, the uprising against the Syrian dictatorship is holding on. The counter-revolution now under way will not succeed in putting out the fire.


But the ultimate outcome depends largely on whether the West will come to the rebels’ aid or abandon the Syrian people to their fate.


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