The claim of Syria’s regime to imminent victory became a little more tenuous this week, as insurgents made notable gains in the southwest and kept up pressure on President Assad’s forces in Aleppo.
The Syrian military did close on the capture of Zabadani, near the Lebanon border, as it consolidated the gains of the five-month Qalamoun offensive.
However, further to the south, near the border with the demilitarized zone with Israel, insurgents advanced further between Quneitra and Daraa. Opposition fighters took the hills of Tel al-Ahmar and the Brigade 61 base at Tel al-Jabiyah, the largest regime position in the area.
The gains mean that insurgents control almost all of southwestern Syria, except for Quneitra city and part of Daraa city.
In Aleppo, the opposition — which has closed on the regime-held areas of Syria’s largest city from the northwest and the south — stepped up attacks on military positions. Having surrounded the Air Force Intelligence headquarters in Layramoun and attacked the Hanano base and Aleppo Citadel in the center, insurgents blew up several buildings on Sunday, including the Chamber of Industry.
State media ignored the insurgent advances as it tried to keep focus on its own military successes and to establish the legitimacy of June’s Presidential election. By Sunday, six candidates — almost all of them little-known — had put themselves forward as nominal challengers to President Assad, whose office proclaimed the process proved “democracy and freedom”.
Of foreign powers with interests in Syria, Turkey made the headline move of the week, sending in a military convoy to the tomb of Suleyman Shah in Aleppo Province. The significance of the move lay more in its marker of Ankara’s support for the insurgents — with weapons and men crossing the Turkish-Syrian border for insurgent offensives in the northwest and west — than in direct confrontation with Assad forces or the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham
The continued gains of the respective insurgent and regime offensives are establishing a de facto “patchwork” partition of Syria. While the Assad regime retains controls of most cities and has the belt of territory between Damascus and Lebanon, it now faces not only insurgent control of much of the north and east but also the prospect of an opposition area of strength in the southwest.
Aleppo continues to be the most prominent “tipping area” in this partition. At the moment, it is the regime which is on the defensive, although there is no prospect of an insurgent into western neighborhoods — more the erosion of Syrian military strength through the ongoing insurgent attacks. The regime’s response of barrel-bombing of insurgent-held areas, while killing hundreds of civilians, does not appear to be checking the assault.
The Syrian military will seek to make its headline progress by claiming insurgent-held territory near Damascus. So far, however, it has been unable to pacify areas such as Jobar and Mleha.
On the political front, the show election of President Assad may reinforce some of his support among those already backing him, but the shallowness of the process is unlikely to make any further political gains.
For the moment, Turkey’s display this week does not herald overt foreign intervention in the conflict. However, the support of insurgents with weapons and de facto open borders appears to be proceeding despite US reluctance.
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