In the past two weeks, several major developments in the Syrian conflict have highlighted the regime's weakened hold on power in several areas of the country.
Eastern and Northeastern Syria
On Nov. 7, Syrian rebels mounted an attack on regime forces situated at or near Ras al-Ayn, a border crossing in the majority-Kurdish Al-Hasakah governorate. The Syrian military fought back with air support, but the rebels defeated the remaining forces on Nov. 14. Pressured by both Arab and Kurdish rebels factions, the regime largely withdrew from the province in July. Now, in light of the rebel victory at Ras al-Ayn, most of the remaining security forces have been driven out of northeastern Syria altogether.
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While the regime is largely out of the picture, considerable questions and disputes persist among the various Arab and Kurdish factions in the area. Factional power struggles have occasionally escalated into open fighting, such as on Nov. 20, when an Arab rebel sniper reportedly shot and killed Abed Khalil, the leader of Ras al-Ayn's local Kurdish council.
Meanwhile, in the eastern Deir el-Zour governorate, the slow pace of rebel successes continued with the seizure last weekend of the town of Al Bukamal and the nearby improvised Hamdan air base. Regime forces remain in the area, especially in and around the main air base in Deir el-Zour, the province's capital, but they have been nearly surrounded. These victories have allowed the rebels to sever most of the regime's overland supply lines to Iraq, making it difficult for the government to receive reinforcements.
Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, rebels in the southwestern Daraa governorate have been under severe pressure from regime forces. The rebels have had difficulty transitioning from a guerrilla campaign comprised mostly of small units employing hit-and-run tactics. In recent weeks, however, signs of an emboldened rebel presence in the province have emerged, with regime attrition rates in the area increasing markedly.
Hama and HomsThough traditionally a city with strong sympathies for the rebels, Hama has been mostly locked down by regime forces in recent months. Indeed, many rebels from Hama left to fight either in the north, in Idlib and Aleppo, or in the south, in Homs. On Oct. 8, large numbers of regime forces from Hama moved north to try to reopen supply lines to Aleppo. However, the regime has not succeeded in driving the rebels out of Maarat al-Numan, and the rebels took advantage of the lighter regime presence in Hama governorate to make some gains in the province. For example, Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel jihadist faction, reportedly set off a large vehicle-borne improvised explosive device filled with unexploded airdropped bombs near a military post in the village of Ziyara, reportedly killing some 50 government security forces personnel.
In Homs governorate, meanwhile, an influx of Hezbollah fighters has helped steel the regime's presence, but the rebels have not been markedly weakened. Indeed, rebels hold the cities of Rastan and Qusayr, and despite an intense monthslong offensive by regime forces on Homs city, the largely besieged rebels there have held their ground. Meanwhile, in rural parts of the province, rebel forces have been striking regime outposts in an attempt to relieve pressure on their comrades in the city.
Tartus governorate remains quiet compared to most parts of Syria; the coastal province's population is majority Alawite — the sect of the al Assads. But in Latakia governorate, another Alawite-majority province directly to the north, rebels moving southwest from Idlib governorate have advanced in the vicinity of the Turkman Mountain and have taken control of Bdama, a key town near the Turkish border. Pushing down from the an-Nusayriyah Mountains, the rebels have now secured some 20 percent of the province and appear to be continuing to advance.
In the northern Idlib and Aleppo governorates, rebels currently hold the cities of Maarat al-Numan and Saraqeb. The rebels have also overrun the special forces regiment that held the western flank of the city of Aleppo, in the process securing large stockpiles of weapons including a dozen tanks, 122mm artillery, a variety of ammunition and SA-16 man-portable air-defense systems. As Stratfor noted two weeks ago, the situation in northern Syria has become dire for the regime, and government troops in the provincial capital are essentially surrounded.
In north-central Syria, rebels in Raqqah governorate have been pushing south toward Raqqah city since capturing the Tal Abyad border crossing, though they have not yet arrived. Unconfirmed reports also indicate that rebels in the area have made considerable progress toward severing the highway between Raqqah and Aleppo to the west.
Rebel operations have continued in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, as well as in various neighborhoods of the city itself. Despite a largely successful regime crackdown a few months ago, the rebels have recently made some serious gains. For example, opposition forces have taken several air defense bases in the eastern Ghouta region, as well as government positions in southwestern Damascus. In response, the regime has reportedly been bolstering defenses in the capital by withdrawing forces from other fronts — areas that are already stressed and similarly in need of reinforcements.
Overall, pressure on the al Assad regime is mounting, and the Syrian military likely understands that it may very well lose the war. Facing defeat, loyalists in the military could turn against the al Assad family, making a coup increasingly possible. Stratfor is watching for signs of internal discontent.