ISTANBUL — Syrian rebels battling to oust President Bashar al-Assad are now facing determined government military offensives on three fronts in the north and west and along an arc of suburbs running south to east around the capital of Damascus. The offensives are stretching rebel forces and triggering more factional infighting and recriminations between their commanders, say analysts.
The most threatening offensive is unfolding around Aleppo, the country’s largest city, which has been divided between government forces and rebels for more than a year.
After a long stalemate in which little territory changed hands in Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub, rebels are now being pressed on the eastern approaches to the city following the capture last month by Assad forces of the strategic outlying towns of Tel Hasel, Tel Arn and, most importantly, Safira, which sits astride a junction of key roads and was being used as a base by Al Qaeda affiliated jihadists.
Assad forces are now focusing aerial attacks on two rebel-held Aleppo districts, Halwaniyeh and Karam el-Beik, causing “heavy civilian casualties”, according to Rami Abdelrahman, the head of the pro-opposition monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Right.
Syrian helicopters have increased also the tempo of attacks on the town of Al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo, dropping so-called barrel bombs – explosive-filled oil barrels—killing more than 50 people, mostly civilians.
Rebels fighting in Aleppo have long used Al-Bab as a holding area for both men and supplies. The airstrikes and barrel-bomb attacks appear to be indiscriminate and fail to distinguish between military targets and non-combatants, allege activists.
“The attacks are targeting civilian neighborhoods,” says Al-Bab resident Barry Abdul Latif.
With airstrikes mounting and ground activity by Assad forces increasing, rebel militia commanders have declared an emergency in Aleppo and called on all rebels to help defend their half of the city. Among their fears, says Jonathan Schanzer, a Syria expert with the Washington DC-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is defections from their own ranks.
“I would not be surprised to see a spike in defectors,” he says. He believes the prospects of scheduled peace talks in Geneva next month that have been opposed by militia leaders, and the decision by the Obama administration not to mount punitive strikes on Assad forces in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons have sapped morale in rebel ranks.
“The Geneva deal, not to mention the subsequent revelation of back channel diplomacy that impacted Obama’s decision to not strike Syria, have had a devastating impact on the morale of the opposition. It would therefore not be surprising to see some of the fighters, despite their utter distaste for Assad, begin to hedge their bets,” he says.
There is suspicion within the rebel ranks that the airstrike that killed noted rebel commander, Abdulkader al-Saleh, the head of the Islamist Liwan al-Tawhid brigade, came about because of intelligence passed on by either fifth columnists or defectors. The airstrike, which also took out several other senior figures in the brigade, was precise. His loss is a serious blow to the rebels – al-Saleh was a key figure in unifying Islamist brigades in 2012 and organizing the capture of several Aleppo suburbs.
“At a time when the Syrian regime is advancing on Aleppo, Saleh’s death therefore is very bad news for the opposition,” Aron Lund, an independent Syria expert, noted in the influential blog Syria Comment. “Even if the front holds, Tawhid could be drained of cohesion, and end up losing sub-units and fighters to other groups.”
Militia leaders in Aleppo aren’t the only ones issuing a rallying cry for reinforcements. To the west of the capital of Damascus, Assad forces backed by fighters from Hezbollah launched what is likely to be a prolonged battle for the mountainous territory of Al-Qalamoun—a rugged region between the Syrian capital and Homs, the country’s third largest city.
Diplomats and analysts say the struggle for Al-Qalamoun is second only to the struggle for Aleppo in terms of military significance. It’s also of similar importance to last spring’s battle over Qusair, a strategic town in sight of Lebanon. Qusair was retaken by the Syrian army thanks to assistance from Hezbollah fighters, who were in the vanguard of the assault on the border town.
The Al-Qalamoun region is seen as vital both by Syrian forces and the rebels. Controlling Al-Qalamoun would allow the Assad regime to secure land links between Damascus and Homs and interdict arms supplies from the rebels’ Lebanese Sunni supporters coming through the border around the town of Arsal.
For the regime, consolidating its hold on Homs is a priority, as it represents a central link between Syria’s interior cities and the Mediterranean coast north of Latakia, a stronghold of the Syrian President’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Lebanese officials and Western diplomats worry that Lebanon won’t be left unscathed in a prolonged battle for Al-Qalamoun.
“This isn’t going to be a two-week battle like Qusair,” says a British military adviser to the Lebanese army. “The region is mountainous and the offensive will extend into the spring and there’ll be more chance of violent spillover into Lebanon.”
Last week, the Syrian military in the region sustained a setback when jihadists overran the Christian town of Deir Attiya, taking advantage of confusion prompted by twin suicide bomb attacks in the nearby town of Nabak. But according to a Syrian military statement “units from the army managed to defeat terrorist groups which had infiltrated Deir Attiya” during the weekend.