Hassan Hassan writes: The Syrian rebels are on a roll. Over the past four months, anti-government forces have made sweeping gains that may redraw the conflict map and shake President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The gains have come on both the war’s northern and southern fronts. On Dec. 15, the rebels took Wadi al-Dhaif, one of the country’s largest military encampments in the north. On Mar. 28, the regime lost the northern city of Idlib, only the second provincial capital to fall to the rebels. The gains continued last week, as rebel forces took the key town of Jisr al-Shugour, southeast of Idlib city, and then pushed further south to capture several villages in Hama province’s al-Ghab plain. On Monday, they seized the “Brick Factory,” one of the last remaining regime strongholds in Idlib province. The gains in the south have been equally impressive: Rebels overran the town of Busra al-Sham in the same week that they took Idlib, and managed to seize the Nassib crossing with Jordan in the following week.
The recent offensives in Idlib have been strikingly swift — thanks in large part to suicide bombers and American anti-tank TOW missiles. In most cases, regime forces have only held out for hours or a few days before retreating. The rebels have also fought with rare harmony under the banner of Jaish al-Fateh (“the Army of Conquest”), a coalition made up of mostly Islamist forces led by Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.
For the first time since the conflict began, Assad’s heartlands in the western region seem exposed. Jisr al-Shugour lies roughly 45 miles to the northeast of the port city of Latakia, one of the keys to Assad’s strength; it is even closer to villages in Hama and Latakia that rebels often describe as “human reservoirs of shabiha,” referring to the high number of residents who join the pro-regime militias. This could be a game changer: As rebels edge closer to Assad’s heartlands, the regime will be forced to rely more heavily on local militias than on the army. Even though local militiamen tend to fight more fiercely than soldiers dispatched outside their areas, the toll of the conflict will likely increase anger against Assad as casualties rise.
These developments do not necessarily mean Assad is in serious trouble yet. His regime is still secure in Damascus; the urban centers of Homs, Hama, and Sweida; and the coastal areas. Even in the northwest, where the rebels are now better positioned than ever to drive out the government forces, the regime army can still put up a serious fight in Aleppo. The city of Hama will prove even tougher ground for the rebels, especially if find themselves fighting against both the regime and the Islamic State, which controls significant parts of the eastern countryside.
But even if the regime remains secure, these developments are shifting the conflict’s dynamics and heralding a new chapter in the country’s civil war. [Continue reading…]