Syria's Internal War Turns Against the Regime

By Jeffrey White
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Clashes have also increased in the countryside around Damascus and even within the capital itself. Serious fighting has erupted there as the regime tries to maintain control over the outskirts while suppressing the rebel presence inside the city -- in other words, Assad's forces are now battling for the very center of the regime. The intensified fighting there also means that the regime is less able to reinforce other important theaters.

The rebellion is growing in the east as well. In Raqqa province, armed opposition elements are on the rise, seizing territory near the Turkish border (e.g., Tal Abyad, Suluk) and interdicting the main highways to Hasakah and Deir al-Zour provinces at several points. Rebels there have reportedly stopped several convoys, including fuel trucks and reinforcements moving from Hasakah to Raqqa. Formerly one of the quietest provinces in Syria, Hasakah has seen a dramatic increase in fighting this month, including the seizure of the Ras al-Ain border crossing with Turkey and clashes in several other locations in the north. The regime rushed reinforcements to Ras al-Ain and has employed combat helicopters in the area, but has been unable to suppress the unrest.

Although the situation in these areas is perhaps the most critical for the regime, it cannot ignore the conflict in other areas. Deir al-Zour, Deraa, Hama, and Homs provinces continue to witness considerable fighting, while Latakia and Quneitra provinces have seen increasing military activity.

OUTLOOK

The war in Syria may be approaching a decisive stage, and in favor of the rebels. The regime has only limited capacity to restore its hold over some critical areas and is being pressed to hold on in others. Probably the best it can hope for is to blunt or slow rebel gains.

This trend appears irreversible unless the regime makes a major change in its approach to the war. Ultimately, this could include use of chemical weapons, massive intervention by Hizballah and Iran, or a retreat from threatened provinces in order to consolidate forces.

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Outside military assistance to the rebels could shift the situation even more quickly and decisively in their favor, potentially preempting any regime move toward extreme measures. It would allow the rebels to defend civilians better, consolidate areas of control, reduce regime strongholds more quickly, increase attrition of regime forces, and reduce their own attrition (which is currently around 40 personnel killed per day). In other words, it could shorten the war.

Finally, military aid provided soon to the right groups -- namely, ones that are politically acceptable to the West and militarily effective -- could help shape the post-Assad situation in a way favorable to U.S. interests. It could also enable these groups to play a more decisive role in the outcome of the fighting and claim a more central role in bringing down the regime. This would better position them for the post-Assad struggle with other groups, especially Islamist extremists.

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Jeffrey White is a defense fellow at The Washington Institute, specializing in the military and security affairs of the Levant and Iran.

This article was originally published as PolicyWatch 1996 and is republished with permission.

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