The ongoing battle for Maarat al-Numan exemplifies the shifting nature of the conflict. Located astride the critical M5 highway, the city plays an important role in the effort to break or maintain regime supply lines to Syria's largest city, Aleppo. Since Oct. 8, concentrated regime forces backed by armor, heavy artillery and aircraft have made repeated attempts to force their way through rebel lines to the city. But despite their considerable firepower, regime forces have yet to reach the city. In fact, the rebels in the area have managed to completely clear out regime troops from Saraqeb further north. This effectively means that even if the regime manages to seize Maarat al-Numan, it would still not have cleared a continuous line of supply to Aleppo along the M5 highway.
The inability of the regime to secure Maarat al-Numan marks the first time that the regime's heavily supported armored formations have been unable to rapidly breach rebel lines in a nonurban or nonmountainous setting. As recently as July, regime armored columns were able to seize the city of Khan Sheikoun, located just south of Maarat al-Numan, in a matter of days, inflicting considerable casualties on the rebels in the process.
The shifting conflict, particularly in the north, is primarily due to two factors. First, the rebels are becoming increasingly more competent and better equipped. Second, regime forces increasingly are finding themselves stretched thin.
During the Nov. 3 attack on Taftanaz Air Base, the rebels used homemade rockets, Type-63 multiple rocket launchers, mortars, ZSU-23 autocannons, KPV 14.5 mm heavy machine guns and T-55 main battle tanks to bombard the air base. While just a few months ago rebels in Aleppo complained about a lack of ammunition, they now seem to have ample supplies of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.
The rebels' equipment originates from outside sources, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as from local workshops that make everything from homemade rockets to improvised explosive devices. But the bulk of the equipment comes from captured regime equipment and stockpiles. Rebel forces have overrun a number of very large supply depots in recent months, and equipment ranging from recoilless rifles to Metis anti-tank guided missiles to flamethrowers have been seized. Ample evidence also suggests that the rebels have seized at least some functioning man-portable air-defense systems (also known as MANPADS), predominantly SA-7s.
While the rebels are becoming better trained and armed, the regime's military forces are becoming extended. At the start of the conflict, regime troops had more troops and better arms. On paper at least, Damascus maintained a very large and well-equipped force. But the majority of the rank and file were Sunnis, making their loyalty suspect. Since the war started, the regime has faced severe attrition through continuous casualties and defections. While the rebels also have suffered very heavy casualties, the country's demographic composition as well as indiscriminate government attacks on civilian areas have ensured a steady flow of new rebel recruits.
As the war has intensified, the regime has found itself fighting on multiple fronts in all of Syria's provinces. As the military moved troops from one area to reinforce a threatened sector, the area the troops vacated would come under increasing pressure from local rebel units. This problem has been on display in Damascus. Rebel hit-and-run attacks have tied down a sizable number of regime troops in the capital, and despite large-scale search-and-destroy missions launched around the suburbs, the regime has not felt confident enough to deploy many units from the capital to other threatened areas such as the north.
Given the precarious position in which the regime finds itself in the north, it has reportedly already begun contingency planning for the next stage of the war. According to a Stratfor source, the government has started creating a strategic reserve of troops equipped with the most modern main battle tanks remaining in its inventory in anticipation of the next battle. In a case where regime forces are overwhelmed in Aleppo and Idlib, large numbers of troops will continue to be stationed in Damascus while forces in the north will fall back on Hama and Homs to maintain a secure line of communication to the Alawite coast. Although the rebels will continue to face considerable opposition from a still-heavily armed regime force, their strategic position will have improved.
Faced with increasingly capable and well-equipped rebel formations while its forces are weakening, the regime in recent months has started relying extensively on its air force and artillery. It now appears that the Syrian Arab Air Force is fully utilizing cluster and thermobaric munitions in their air raids. As the regime finds itself in greater difficulties, it will be far more willing to escalate its attacks with the use of more powerful weapons. The rebels have sought to counter the regime's reliance on airpower by creating dedicated and mobile anti-aircraft units utilizing "technicals" armed with ZSU-23 and KPV anti-aircraft weapons. There is also some evidence that the rebels are using their captured MANPADS against regime aircraft. That the regime's planes recently have flown at a greater altitude (thus reducing their accuracy) and made ample use of flares shows the pilots are worried about the MANPADS threat. Rebel attacks on air bases, targeted assassinations of air force personnel and elevated aircraft attrition rates also gradually have eroded the Syrian Arab Air Force's strength.
Given these developments, it is increasingly evident that the stalemate in the north is no more and that the break favored the rebels, forcing the regime to start planning for the next stage of the conflict. As it seeks to delay the rebel advances in the north, the regime will try to maintain pressure on the rebel units in the Orontes River Valley in anticipation of the major frontlines shifting further south.