Syria’s Revitalized Rebels Make Big Gains in Assad’s Heartland

Syria’s Revitalized Rebels Make Big Gains in Assad’s Heartland

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.

Attacking Assad’s strongholds

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. The strategic importance of the seized areas and the rebels’ improved coordination will help the anti-Assad forces push deep into regime-controlled terrain. This will likely improve the safety of rebel-held areas significantly and tip the balance in much of the country.

In recent months, according to opposition sources, the rebels developed a strategy of preventing the regime from bombing certain areas through deterrence and tit-for-tat attacks against loyalists’ strongholds. Rebels would warn regime forces that if they bombed certain areas — mostly newly captured territory — the rebels would retaliate against regime strongholds. The strategy has occasionally worked: After the takeover of Idlib, Ahrar al-Sham’s leader, Hisham al-Shaikh, told Al Jazeera that his group and allied forces hoped that this understanding would prevent the regime from bombing the urban center. While no agreement transpired in that case, such a strategy would have a greater chance of success if the rebels penetrated the regime strongholds.

Arab allies finally working together

Two key regional developments have helped fuel these rebel gains. The first is the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and its old rivals, Qatar and Turkey. The rapprochement helped avoid the usual bickering among the rebels that preceded major battles. Opposition sources say Ankara and Riyadh agreed, during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meeting with King Salman in March, to increase support to Syrian rebels, “including groups that Riyadh would not support before” — a reference to groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or with ties to al Qaeda.

It is Qatar and Turkey, more than Saudi Arabia, whose support has fuelled the recent rebel gains in Idlib. Doha and Ankara have better links with the rebels in the north, while Riyadh’s current contribution is mostly limited to its concession that it would not stand in the way of supporting Islamist groups. Saudi-backed groups are either non-existent or played little role in the fighting — both the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Hazm Movement were routed by Jabhat al-Nusra two months ago, and subsequently dissolved themselves.

Riyadh is poised to become more involved in coming weeks, as opposition sources indicate that it will host various rebel forces and help to unify and strengthen them. The Syrian Islamic Council, a coalition of prominent religious clerics backed by Doha and Ankara, has been also involved in mediation among various rebel groups. The recent gains could be only the beginning as the rebels’ organization and coordination increase further in the coming weeks and months.

The return of the Islamists

The second key development that contributed to the rebel advances is the revitalization of two of Syria’s most powerful factions, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Both of these Islamist groups had been dealt a series of heavy blows that significantly downsized them: Jabhat al-Nusra weakened after internal splits upon the formation of the Islamic State in April 2013 and the latter’s announcement of a “caliphate” in June, while Ahrar al-Sham lost almost its entire top leadership in an explosion inside one of its bases in September. The two groups have now recovered from those setbacks, and have led a string of successful battles in the north and the south, including the recent gains in Idlib.

While the opposition’s regional allies have contributed to the rebels’ newfound strength, the hands-off approach of some countries has also made unity easier. Past support for moderate groups by the United States and others created suspicion and friction among nationalist and jihadist groups, while remaining insufficient to tip the balance against the regime. Today, many countries are dropping support for the moderate forces, an opportunity that groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra seized to force out these groups and launch attacks against the regime.

It is not only the rebels’ strength, but the regime’s weakness, that has resulted in the recent shift in fortunes on the Syrian battlefield. Iran has focused on building up the National Defence Forces, a pro-Assad paramilitary force, at the expense of aiding the Syrian military. This has alienated some Syrian officers: According to pro-regime sources, many long-standing army generals have either voluntarily stepped aside or were sidelined because of negligence toward the army in favor of Iranian-backed militias. Well-placed anti-opposition sources say some high-level army officers have left the country in protest or for fear of their safety, though they insist they are not defectors. There is a sense of indignation among those officers toward the regime because of the policies that led to the marginalization of the army.

The recent rebel gains could accelerate such agitation within the regime’s support base. As Assad’s losses mount, he will find himself stretched increasingly thin across the conflict’s multiple battlefields, and forced to contend with a loyalist population that wonders more day by day why they are sacrificing their sons for the sake of keeping him in the presidential palace.