Syrian rebels gain, but for how long?

NOW Lebanon: Alex Rowell, December 6, 2012

The resignation of Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi on Monday is just one of a series of recent setbacks for the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The news follows a week of unprecedented military victories for rebel forces, including the shooting down of two regime aircraft in as many days, a pledge by NATO to deploy Patriot surface-to-air missiles along the Turkish-Syrian border, and a diplomatic breakthrough that could see European nations arming the opposition by March 2013.

At the same time, the regime has been bombarding  the Damascus province in a thus-far successful effort to repel an opposition advance into the capital, while also gaining on rebel positions in the Aleppo region. Perhaps most significantly, US officials claimed  Wednesday that the regime had loaded aerial bombs with sarin, a deadly nerve gas, following a second warning from Washington that the use of chemical weapons would prompt military intervention.

On balance, several analysts argue the momentum has shifted in the rebels’ favor, particularly in light of their newly acquired surface-to-air weaponry. “Assad has been relying on air power to keep rebels pinned in their positions. Their ability to challenge this state of affairs has given them more confidence and enabled them to carry out bolder operations, as we are currently seeing in Damascus, Aleppo, Deir az-Zour and Daraa,” said Ammar Abdulhamid, an exiled Syrian activist and fellow at the Washington, DC-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The rebels are gradually breaking the stalemate and gaining the upper-hand […] A de facto no-fly zone is being created,” he told NOW.

Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, agrees that “the rebels have been regularly and steadily improving their tactical performance since the end of May.” He cautions, however, that the regime “is still very capable of” using its air force and remains “very much in command of what forces it has left—and these are not insignificant forces.” Accordingly, he argues that “what looks like quite dramatic and swift rebel advances and regime losses” may instead be a move “toward a new stabilized stalemate around a line running broadly from the Turkish border through Aleppo to Deir az-Zour, versus the regime holding onto Damascus and the Lebanese border to Homs, Hama and then around to Latakia.”

Moreover, it is unclear how long the rebels’ surface-to-air missile (SAM) stocks can last. “Rebel operations and fighting capabilities have always been undermined by an unsteady flow of arms,” said Abdulhamid. “That a portion of the surface-to-air missiles in rebel possession seems to have been gained from looting the military bases that rebels conquered and not from external suppliers” means that “depletion is a serious concern.”

Opposition activist Maher al-Esber, however, believes the rebels have already seized sufficient quantities. “They took missiles from more than one place,” he told NOW. “Practically if, [for example], you have 50 missiles and [the regime] has 100 planes, you achieve complete deterrence.” Current estimates put the rebels’ SAM stockpile at around 40, against more than 300 attack aircraft.

Elsewhere, rebel gains in the north and northeast have sparked concerns about the prominence of Jabhat al-Nusra, a secretive brigade of both Syrian and foreign jihadists that has carried out dozens of suicide attacks in the last year—sometimes killing civilians—and reportedly played a decisive role in recent battles. In a rare interview this week with the Telegraph, a member of the group admitted that some of his comrades “hate the West and all non-Muslims” and “want to attack churches.”

According to Abdulhamid, while “the growing size and involvement of Jabhat al-Nusra is pretty worrying,” it remains heavily outnumbered by non-jihadist rebels. “Jabhat has its allies among rebels who share its vision for an Islamic state, but it has more enemies, as most rebel groups refuse to endorse [this] option.” Moreover, Abdulhamid foresees “clashes between Jabhat members and other rebel groups” taking place “after or even during the liberation of Damascus, [which] will ripple elsewhere in the country.”

As for the fears of chemical weapons use by the regime, Sayigh believes it is essentially a regime bluff. “[Assad] has been using the chemical weapons issue to sort of play a little game, to say ‘Look, we can make trouble, and equally we can prevent that trouble. If you want these to be secure, you need us, so they don’t fall into bad hands, i.e., Islamists.’”

Abdulhamid, however, argues the threat is credible. “The psychopathic tendencies of Assad and his inner circle have been amply documented by now. We cannot put anything beyond them. For all their manifest corruption, we are dealing here with people who seem to believe their own lies […] Assad might decide that he is a dead man no matter what happens, so he might as well die as a ‘hero’ of the resistance to imperialism and Zionism.”

Amani Hamad contributed reporting.