Assad’s hold on power looks shakier than ever as rebels advance in Syria

The Washington Post reports: A surge of rebel gains in Syria is overturning long-held assumptions about the durability of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which now appears in greater peril than at any time in the past three years.

The capture Saturday of the town of Jisr al-Shughour in northern Idlib province was just the latest in a string of battlefield victories by rebel forces, which have made significant advances in both the north and the south of the country.

As was the case in the capital of Idlib province last month, government defenses in Jisr al-Shughour crumbled after just a few days of fighting, pointing as much to the growing weakness of regime forces as the revival of the opposition.

The battlefield shifts come at a time when the Obama administration has set aside the crisis in Syria to focus on its chief priorities: defeating the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and concluding a nuclear deal with Iran.

Yet the pace of events in Syria may force the United States to refocus on the unresolved war, which remains at the heart of the turmoil engulfing the Middle East, analysts say. Iran backs ­Assad, Saudi Arabia backs the rebels, and a shift in the balance of power in Syria could have profound repercussions for the conflicts in Iraq and Yemen. [Continue reading…]

Reuters adds: A coalition of Islamist rebels seized an army base in northwestern Syria at dawn on Monday after a suicide bomber from al Qaeda’s Nusra Front drove a truck packed with explosives into the compound and blew it up.

The capture, reported by a rebel commander and social media videos showing militants inside the base, brought the coalition closer to seizing most of Idlib province and moving toward Latakia, the ancestral home of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Robert S. Ford writes: The Assad regime still enjoys some military advantages and support from Iran and Russia, which helps to prolong the conflict. Yet some recent developments may in fact be indicators of the beginning of the end.

Inability to defend and to counterattack. Although the armed opposition announced its plan to attack the provincial capital of Idlib weeks in advance, the regime lacked forces to reinforce the city, which it lost on March 28 a week after the battle started. The regime has since tried to assemble forces for a counterattack, but its gains have been minimal. At the other end of the country, near the Jordanian border, the regime lost the regional stronghold of Busra Sham on March 25 and then the important Nasib border crossing on April 2—the last functioning crossing with Jordan. Regime counterattacks in those areas also stalled. In sum, the regime appears broadly on the defensive now, and its hold on western Aleppo appears insecure due to the vulnerability of its supply lines.

Increased dissent within the inner regime. There are four secret police agencies that are the foundation of the regime’s power, and in mid-March the regime publicly announced that the heads of two of them had been fired. The removal of Political Security Director Rustum Ghazaleh and Syrian Military Intelligence Chief Rafiq Shehadeh was unprecedented. There are unconfirmed reports that Ghazaleh and Shehadeh fell out over the regime’s dependence on Iran; there also are unconfirmed reports that in the wake of the argument Ghazaleh had to be hospitalized after he was physically attacked. [Continue reading…]

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