Jabhat al-Nusra spearheaded the attack March 4 that overran loyalist positions in Raqqa, essentially giving the rebels control of the city. They have reportedly now captured the city's governor, the governor's house and the air force intelligence headquarters. Raqqa is the first provincial capital to fall completely under rebel control, a significant milestone that underlines the gains being made by the rebels in the north.
Since the September 2012 seizing of the Tel Abyad border crossing with Turkey, the rebels have steadily advanced south toward the city of Raqqa. Considering the vast numbers of refugees who had fled to Raqqa, there were concerns that the battle for the city would be devastating. Yet the swift collapse of loyalist resistance meant the city was largely spared the intense urban fighting seen elsewhere. Still, it is not certain that the fighting is over, since the regime could retaliate with air and artillery strikes.
Loyalist forces are largely concentrated in Syria's west and south in their efforts to hold Homs, Hama, Damascus and the Alawite coast. Rebel pressure has prevented the regime from allocating significant forces to stem advances in the north and east. That is not to say that rebel progress has been unobstructed. For example, as rebels overwhelmed loyalist positions in a strategic area just west of Aleppo in the past few days, news emerged that the regime had managed to break the encirclement of the city by seizing a critical village south of Aleppo International Airport. Even though the regime forces' supply lines through the village are tenuous, the seizure of the area disrupts rebel operations and stresses important weaknesses on the rebel side.
The capture of Raqqa also comes as rebels are striking northeast into Hasakah governorate. Jabhat al-Nusra also forms a substantial portion of the rebel push in that area, a fact that raises the possibility of further infighting between the rebels and the Syrian Kurdish YPG forces in the aftermath of a tenuous peace following heavy fighting over the Ras al-Ayn border crossing.
Elsewhere, after pitched fighting for the Yaarabiya crossing on the Syria-Iraq border, roughly 50 Syrian troops withdrew into Iraq on March 2 to avoid falling victim to the rebel advance. Seeking to return the Syrian soldiers to Syria, the Iraqis were driving them toward the remaining Tenef border crossing, which is held by the Syrian regime, when their convoy fell victim to an elaborate ambush consisting of multiple improvised explosive devices followed by small arms and indirect mortar fire. The ambush, which occurred in Ar Rutba, Anbar province, was clearly well planned and likely benefited from significant intelligence. Dozens of Syrian and Iraqi soldiers were killed in the attack.
The Iraqi provinces bordering Syria are increasingly volatile as Sunni Arabs mobilize to help each other on both sides of the border. The Anbar tribes are reportedly sending weapons and fighters to help the Syrian rebels, but as the rebels secure their positions in the east, the Iraqi government may see a reversal of the flow of fighters and weapons that might challenge its authority.
Recent rebel victories in Raqqa, Deir el-Zour and Hasakah have highlighted the pivotal role played by al-Nusra and other extremist rebel units. These fighters' advances in the north and east will increasingly be cause for concern for the Syrian Kurdish YPG and the Iraqi government, respectively. Previous fighting with the Kurds and spillover violence in Iraq will be harder to stem once the rebels gain free rein over the remaining loyalist positions in the east and north.