The fight against Bashar Assad’s one-party Baath state, which began in March 2011 and which had seemed locked in a bloody stalemate, may be tilting in the opposition’s favour.
Major military gains by opposition militias have been made in the east and north of the country in the past two weeks. Last week surface-to-air missiles brought down a regime helicopter and, for the first time, a MiG fighter plane.
The West has refused to supply modern anti-aircraft weapons to the military opposition for fear that advanced technology may, in the future, be used against Western or Israeli targets. But weapons seized from regime military bases are now being used to make new gains.
The militias started as local self-defence brigades often shaped by former regime officers, but now have a more complex character. The mainstream Free Syrian Army units are more nationalist and more religiously moderate than the emerging jihadist groups. In Aleppo, for example, four large rebel organisations exist and cooperate: Liwa al-Fatah and the largest, Liwa al-Tahwid, are less overtly religious; Jahbat al-Nusra is jihadist and Ahrar al-Sham says it is Salafist.
The regime — a sectarian state based on the one-in-ten Alawite minority in Syria — is finding it increasingly difficult to motivate its own fighters; morale is low.
Although Syria has large armed forces, many of its troops are Sunni, and are considered unreliable, and have been kept isolated and unused. The regime has now conscripted all male Alawites aged between 18 and 50.
The political opposition, recently reconfigured into the National Coalition for Revolutionary Forces and the Syrian Opposition, is now effectively dominated by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. With its allies, it has more than 50% of the Coalition’s 60 ruling council seats. The Coalition and its backers in the Gulf, Europe and the US, are preparing to name the Prime Minister for a future transitional government. Riad Hijab, a longstanding leader of the Ba’ath party before he defected in August, may get the job.
Although the opposition is making gains it is still a long way from winning the war, and it is unclear what the political outcome will be. Syria is fragmenting along sectarian lines: tribes in the east, Kurds in the north east, Sunni rebels in Aleppo and Idlib and those loyal to the state on the coast and around the capital, Damascus.
Alison Baily, an analyst, suggests, “the most likely scenario is that the regime is ground down into a well-armed militia.”
Savage fighting is taking place around Damascus. An opposition offensive in summer was brutally put down, but now the opposition is making new gains here, too. Last week the main airport was closed because of the fighting.
In desperation the regime cut off internet access for two days. The regime is now pounding dissident suburbs to the east of Damascus’s city centre, using aircraft and helicopter gunships.
The state seems to being extensively helped by its imperialist backers, Russia and Iran. Hundreds of tonnes of banknotes have been flown in from Russia to prop up the economy.
Supplies of weapons come from Iran through Iraqi airspace, and hundreds of Iranian military advisors are working inside the country to prop up the dictatorship.