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Momentum shifts, giving Assad upper hand

Ben Hubbard
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With West shying away from arming the rebels who are mired in infighting and are losing territory, the President is at ease

Not long ago, rebels on the outskirts of Damascus were peppering the city with mortars, government soldiers were defecting in droves and reports circulated of new territory pried from the grip of President Bashar al-Assad.

As his losses grew, Mr. Assad unleashed fighter jets and Scud missiles, intensifying fears that mounting desperation would push him to lash out with chemical weapons.

That momentum has now been reversed.

In recent weeks, rebel groups have been killing one another with increasing ferocity, losing ground on the battlefield and alienating the very citizens they say they want to liberate. At the same time, the United States and other Western powers that have called for Mr. Assad to step down have shown new reluctance to providing the rebels with badly needed weapons.

Though few expect that Mr. Assad can reassert his authority over the whole of Syria, even some of his staunchest enemies acknowledge that his position is stronger than it has been in months. His resilience suggests that he has carved out what amounts to a rump state in central Syria that is firmly backed by Russia, Iran and Hizbollah and that Mr. Assad and his supporters will likely continue to chip away at the splintered rebel movement.

“Mr. Assad is powerful now, not as a President who controls a state but as a warlord, as someone who has more and more sophisticated weapons than the others,” said Hassan Hassan, a Syrian commentator at the Abu Dhabi-based English language newspaper The National . “He is not capable of winning back the country.”

The civil war has Balkanised the country, with an array of armed groups controlling different areas. The government retains its grip on the capital and has been solidifying its control over a string of major cities to the north. Rebel groups hold large swaths of land in the country’s north and east, though they are far from unified, with militias competing for resources, imposing their own laws and sometimes turning their guns on one another. The Kurds, Syria’s largest ethnic minority, control their own areas and often fight to keep the rebels out.

Overall, about 60 per cent of the Syrian population lives in government-controlled areas, while the rebels effectively control 60 to 70 per cent of the actual territory, said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syrian expert with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. That is because the rebels are strongest in less populated rural areas, he said.

But a stalemate that has divided the country for months has begun to shift as Mr. Assad’s forces — bolstered by regular support from his allies — have rolled back rebel gains and eased the pressure on the capital.

Even fighters who had hoped that Mr. Assad would end up deposed, dead, jailed or exiled like other autocrats singled out in the Arab Spring uprisings have begun to acknowledge the emerging reality.

“If the revolution continues like this, the people will revolt against us,” said a rebel commander from the central city of Homs, where Mr. Assad’s forces have made gains in recent days.

The commander, who wanted only his first name, Ahmed, used to protect his family, criticised his fellow rebels for putting the interests of their brigades ahead of the wider anti-Assad struggle and accused them of hoarding powerful weapons or selling them for a profit. That lack of unity has prolonged the war and made their mission harder, he said.

“If a regular Syrian comes and asks me what we have given him, I don’t know what to say,” Ahmed said.

The rise of al-Qaida-linked groups like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has further splintered the cause, with some Syrian fighters resenting international jihadists who have joined the battle to serve their own ends.

The United States and its Western allies have pressed for Mr. Assad to leave power and talked about arming select rebel groups. The European Union lifted its arms embargo on Syria, which rebels expected would lead to weapon supplies.

But rebels say none have arrived so far.

All of this has given Mr. Assad a new level of confidence, said Assem Kansou, a member of the Lebanese Parliament and the local branch of Mr. Assad’s Baath Party whose children grew up with Mr. Assad and who has visited him frequently throughout the crisis.

“Now you sit with him and you see that he is at ease,” Mr. Kansou said. — New York Times News Service


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