Rebel forces have reduced Syrian President Bashar al Assad to little more than the top warlord in Syria, and Thursday's events show that his position may be eroding even further. The closure of Damascus International Airport and disruption to Internet services throughout the country are some of the latest signs that rebel forces are threatening the heart of the state.
The Damascus International Airport closed as rebels fought al Assad's forces nearby. Flights into and out of Damascus have dwindled during the past year and a half of fighting, so it appears that only two flights were affected Thursday. Fighting between al Assad's forces and rebels reportedly reached within two kilometers (1.2 miles) of the airport but al Assad's forces claimed that they had retaken the road leading to the airport and secured it.
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The airport is a key piece of infrastructure, used to maintain the Syrian regime's external links and keep Damascus connected to the rest of the world. Putting the airport in jeopardy is a symbolic success for the rebels. Controlling it would be an even bigger symbolic success. However, taking the Damascus International Airport isn't a very practical objective for the rebels at this point.
Syria's rebel forces in the Damascus area have followed traditional guerrilla strategy: keep forces diffuse and don't provide the enemy with a target to attack. Damascus International Airport would take a large amount of rebel resources to hold and makes for an easy target. Rebel forces would prefer to maintain pressure on al Assad's forces while making occasional stands in urban centers and fortified terrain. Damascus International Airport is separated from the city and is very isolated. It is not an ideal position for the rebels to hold. However, as the rebels strengthen and al Assad's forces weaken in and near the capital, the rebels will try to take over sizable portions of the city as they have done in the north, most notably in Aleppo.
Additionally, al Assad's forces maintain significant anti-aircraft capability, which means that even if the rebels held the airport, they wouldn't be able to exploit it due to al Assad's control over air space. The rebels already have reliable overland supply lines from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. In fact, rebel control over much of the borderlands makes airports and control over air space that much more important for al Assad's forces; for them, land routes are very much in jeopardy. Rebel forces have already taken airfields controlled by al Assad around the country and even near Damascus only to abandon them soon after, indicating that the rebels have little interest in holding an airport. The symbolic victory of threatening airports seems to be good enough for now.
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Soon after Damascus International Airport was forced to close, reports emerged that the Internet had been cut off in Syria. The government blamed the rebels for the outage and the rebels blamed the government. It isn't yet clear who was responsible, but the Internet has typically been an asset best exploited by the rebels up to this point, since it has allowed them to broadcast images of their war against al Assad's forces and communicate with pro-rebel groups outside the country. It is not clear what the rebels would gain from cutting off the Internet.
The more likely cause for the outage is that al Assad decided to shut down Internet access across the country in order to control communications. Al Assad's forces have taken this measure in specific regions preceding a military operation in an attempt to prevent rebels from communicating. When protests were spreading across the country in 2011, al Assad temporarily shut off Internet access to little effect. Regardless of how the Internet was disabled today, the shutdown indicates weakness within the regime. Either they lost control of the network or the threat they are facing is so pervasive that they have to shut down the entire national network instead of just localized networks.
Damascus International Airport and Syria's telecommunications networks are two key pieces of infrastructure for the Syrian state. As al Assad's forces lose more and more territory, their control over state infrastructure is also faltering. The Syrian rebels don't necessarily need to take over control of the infrastructure in order to prove that al Assad is weak. Putting the infrastructure in jeopardy is enough to do that.