Joshua Landis and Steven Simon write: Three months ago, Assad’s army was beleaguered. A large confederation of jihadist and Islamist militias calling themselves the Victory Army had achieved something resembling unity. Built around Syria’s two strongest militias — al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syria franchise; and Ahrar al-Sham, the most powerful Salafi militia in the country — the Victory Army conquered two strategic northern cities, Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour, in quick succession this spring. These victories attracted many other militias into their orbit and promised success. The expulsion of regime forces from Jisr al-Shughour not only meant the independence of Idlib more generally but put Latakia, a regime stronghold, in serious jeopardy. The new resistance army seemed to overcome the opposition’s chronic fragmentation; it was also well armed and supported by the region’s Sunni states.
But Assad’s greatest advantage — a fragmented opposition divided into more than 1,000 constantly feuding militias — seems to be back. Recently, over 20 rebel militia leaders have been assassinated, most by a breakaway faction of the Victory Army. The militias that the United States trained and armed at great expense have been crushed, not by Assad but by other rebels.
Meanwhile, Russia’s advanced aircraft, helicopters, and tanks have been pounding the Victory Army for months. Russian aircrews fly close to 200 sorties a day, allowing Assad and his allies to go on the offensive in both the north and south of Syria. Ahrar al-Sham has agreed to go to talks in Geneva, an about-face, after snubbing the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura as an Assad lackey only months ago. Al Qaeda’s Syria leader pronounced those who head to Geneva guilty of “high treason,” a clear death threat but also an indicator of clear anxiety. Another sign of desperation was the call put out by the Victory Army to foreign fighters to come join their ranks. Non-jihadist members of the coalition were infuriated by this tactic, which would inevitably associate them with the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and withdrew from the coalition. Assad, in short, is dividing his enemies and counting on his ability to pick off one at a time. [Continue reading…]