Monday 23 May 2022 | 02:59 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 May 2022 | 02:59 | SYDNEY

Syria: The clouds darken for Assad


Rodger Shanahan


29 November 2012 12:00

The focus on Gaza over the last two weeks shifted the spotlight away from Syria, but for those still watching, the momentum appears to be shifting towards the rebels. 

The opposition appears to have redoubled its military and political efforts over the past few weeks. It is no coincidence that the end of the hiatus coincided with the US elections, as opposition forces and regional states waited to see who would be in power in Washington. President Obama's victory speech was delivered on 6 November; the Syrian opposition agreed in-principle to form a more inclusive body just five days later.

The rebel forces have recently made some gains in the north and northeast of the country, looking to isolate Aleppo and force Assad to abandon it if Damascus is unable to resupply its forces or if Assad considers it more important to protect the capital and its lifeline to the west coast. 

Disturbingly for Assad, it appears his ground forces are unable or unwilling to conduct much in the way of ground manoeuvre. There have been few if any reports of counterattacks or of positions re-taken, and the Syrian military continues to rely on air power to harass rebel forces and to try to prevent them from massing, a defensive measure, for sure.

These tactics are due in part to a decision made by the Syrian military that it would be unable to hold the entire country and that some parts in the north and the sparsely populated northeast would have to be sacrificed. The freedom of action thus accorded to the rebels has allowed them to use southern Turkey for logistics support with increasing openness.

Assad has always considered Damascus as the main game but perception (both internally and internationally) can have a logic all its own, and continual loss of control over territory paints a picture of a regime struggling to hold on. Iran's rather quixotic attempts to advocate among regional states for the brokering of a political solution also adds to the sense that it is increasingly a matter of when, not if, Assad will fall.

But despite all the claims of unbroken rebel successes, there is no indication that the Syrian military is on the point of collapse. And there continue to be problems for the rebels and their supporters. Regular clashes between various rebel factions and Kurds in Syria's north and northeast illustrate ongoing suspicions about the rebels' intentions. And to reinforce those fears, Damascus recently released a list of over 140 foreign fighters from 18 countries that it said had been killed in recent fighting.

This, and the willingness of rebel groups to target civilians, adds to Western nervousness in publicly backing the rebels before they know better who they are and what they want. France and the UK have rather precipitously recognised the newly formed opposition umbrella group as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, even though the opposition doesn't control the rebel forces. Washington is right to be more circumspect. The more civilians killed by rebel forces, the more difficult it will be to argue that any assistance London, Paris or other countries provide is 'non-lethal'.

Photo by Flickr user FreedomHouse.