Gunning for Damascus

When no one was watching, the Syrian rebels started winning.

John Cantlie/AFP/Getty Images
John Cantlie/AFP/Getty Images

Mideast conflicts have a nasty habit of occurring all at once. And while all eyes have been on Gaza and Israel this past week, several major diplomatic and military developments have occurred on the Syrian front — some of which may prove decisive to the end game of a 20-month old crisis.

The rebels are winning.  The insurgents on the ground in Syria appear to be winning more and more territory and confiscating more and more high-grade materiel from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Just as Operation Pillar of Defense was kicking off over Gaza on Nov. 14, the Free Syrian Army took the entire city of al-Bukamal along the Iraqi border, where they also sacked two major airbases, giving the opposition a strong military foothold in Syria’s easternmost province, a vital smuggling route for weapons.

The rebels then claimed a massive victory on the night of Nov. 18, sacking the Syrian Army’s 46th Regiment, 15 miles west of Aleppo, after a 50 day-long siege. The real score, though, was in confiscated materiel: Rebels made off with tanks, armored vehicles, Type-63 multiple rocket launchers, artillery shells, howitzers, mortars, and even SA-16 surface-to-air missiles. Gen. Ahmed al-Faj of the Joint Command, a consortium of different rebel battalions, told the Associated Press: "There has never been a battle before with this much booty." (For a seemingly comprehensive video accounting of the rebel haul, check out Brown Moses’s blog.)

The gains have only continued in the past week. On Nov. 20, rebels hit the Syrian Information Ministry in Damascus with two mortar rounds and stormed an air defense base at Sheikh Suleiman, about 11 miles from the Turkish border, where they seized stocks of explosives before withdrawing to elude retaliatory air strikes. "Assad’s forces use the base to shell many villages and towns in the countryside," one rebel said. "It is now neutralized."

There are also signs that bigger gains are on the way. It’s "March to Damascus Week" for the revolutionaries, as a multi-pronged offensive has taken shape in and around the capital. On Nov. 19, Ansar al-Islam and Jund Allah Brigades, two Islamist rebel groups, seized the Syrian Air Defense Battalion headquarters near Hajar al-Aswad, just south of Damascus. Another base in Ghouta, a region in the Damascus countryside, was also sacked. Opposition forces are also holding Daraya, a southwest suburb of the capital, despite days of intense aerial bombardment from Assad’s Republican Guard.

This map, courtesy of the wonderfully obsessive EA Worldview website, shows how rebel operations have arrived right at Assad’s doorstep the last 48 hours. Meanwhile, as EA Worldview’s Jim Miller points out, the Syrian north is now effectively anti-Assad country: "The regime has not won a noteworthy military victory in this territory in over two months."

Syria’s political opposition is getting its act together. The six Gulf Cooperation Council member states, France, Libya, Turkey and Britain have now all recognized the Syrian National Coalition, which was formed in Doha on Nov. 11, as "the" (not "a," an important distinction in diplomatese) legitimate representative of the Syrian people, in effect making it the new government-in-exile for all those countries. The anti-Assad opposition group has even appointed its own ambassador to France, Munzer Makhous, an Alawite with a background in academia, no doubt selected to signpost its minority-friendly inclusiveness. These moves have led to intense speculation about whether Western countries are prepared to supply the rebels with military assistance, or even the possibility of an Anglo-French-led effort at intervention.

Yet that all still hangs on the United States, which stopped short of fully recognizing the coalition. State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the newborn body, which Foggy Bottom helped midwife, simply "a legitimate representative of the Syrian people" — the same language Washington used with the Syrian National Council. The EU foreign ministers’ statement was even more wishy-washy, recognizing the coalition merely as "legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people."

This fudge is deliberate, and there are at least two reasons behind it. First, Washington and Brussels understand that while the coalition’s optics and rhetoric might be encouraging (President Moaz al-Khatib’s alarming website notwithstanding), it still has much work to do in expanding its ranks, building a viable transitional government, and — most important — proving rather than simply asserting that it controls the bulk of the armed rebels.

Its control over the men who are waging the insurgency against Assad’s military was cast in doubt last week, when members of the Islamist Tawhid Brigade, the largest rebel faction in Aleppo, rejected the new coalition as a "conspiracy" against the uprising. The group quickly reversed course: On Tuesday, a new YouTube video showed Tawhid Brigade spokesman Abdel-Qader Saleh affirming the group’s support for the coalition, "as long as it adheres to the objectives of and aspirations of the revolution" and characterizing the earlier statement as a rogue demarche based on the "marginalization of revolutionary groups with an actual presence on the ground, which are leading the liberation of Aleppo."

President Barack Obama’s administration may also be wary of going all in with the coalition because it realizes that it could increase the pressure to intervene in Syria, which it is loathe to do. If the coalition is described as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, then a credible case can be made to designate Assad’s forces an "invading" presence in Syria — making it all the more urgent to expel them by force.

Turkey gets its Patriots. For the last fortnight, Turkey had been playing its usual will-we-or-won’t-we games with the media over whether it would move for NATO to position Patriot missile systems on its border with Syria. It ended the suspense on Nov. 20, when Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that a deal had indeed been struck to better fortify Turkey’s 560-mile border with Syria with the kind of surface-to-air batteries that made Saddam Hussein’s life very unpleasant in two Gulf wars. Though NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has claimed that the Patriots would exclusively be used to counter cross-border Syrian mortar rounds, there’s always the chance they could be used to shoot down Syrian aircraft that fly too close to the border, thus creating a no-fly zone.

Creating a no-fly zone might not require too much heavy lifting for the United States. Lt. Col. Eddie Boxx and Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace have argued that if Patriot systems were stationed on the Turkish and Jordanian borders and were used in conjunction with three types of U.S. aircraft — the E-3 AWACS, RC-135 Rivet Joint, and E-8 JSTARS — they could "give the FSA a protected arc some 40-50 miles from the borders."

 Twitter: @michaeldweiss

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