All of a sudden, things change in Syria

Friday 15/05/2015
Rebel convoy heading towards the town of Busra al-Harir in Deraa province

BEIRUT - New dynamics unfolding in the see-sawing Syria war, dovetailed by a se­ries of “unfortunate in­cidents” within the re­gime’s inner circle, might indicate a major shake-up of the status quo and of President Bashar Assad’s hold on power.
One after the other, Assad’s ap­paratchiks are falling victim to in­ternal squabbles and mysterious deaths.
The head of political security, General Rustom Ghazaleh, a long-time regime stalwart, died in April after reportedly being severely beaten by another loyalist intel­ligence chief, General Rafiq She­hadeh, who was later dismissed by Assad. There were reports that Ghazaleh might have opposed Iran’s growing influence in Syria.
In late 2014, Hafez Makhlouf, As­sad’s cousin, was sacked as head of security in Damascus province and fled the country. Media reports point to the temporary detention of another presidential cousin, Munz­er Assad.
Another member of the ruling Alawite clan, Mohammed Tawfiq Assad, a powerful cousin of the president and known as the “Chief of the Mountain”, was killed in March.
At the same time, rebels have made significant gains in the Syr­ian north and south. They have taken control of the military base of Wadi al-Deif in the north, after capturing the provincial capital of Idlib and the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour.
Fresh fighting is reported in the Mediterranean province of Lata­kia near the mountains of Jabal al-Akrad in the heartland of the ruling Alawite sect. This is close to some of the highest peaks in Syria, including Nabi Younis, which over­look Alawite villages and Qardaha, hometown of the Assad family.
US Syria expert Joshua Landis told The Arab Weekly that the stra­tegic coastal region had “become indefensible”.
In southern Syria, the opposition halted offensives by Assad’s forces and opened new fronts in Daraa province while seizing the Nasib border crossing with Jordan, a vital trading artery and the last crossing still operating. The key town of Bus­ra al-Sham also fell to Assad’s foes.
A rebel campaign launched against regime forces, including Hezbollah, on the Lebanon-Syria border is reported to be progressing into the mountainous Qalamoun re­gion in the west.
The northern and southern gains were the result of better coordina­tion between rebel factions and the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affili­ate in Syria. Similar dynamics were noticed in the south.
This increased harmonisation among rebel groups, which had pre­viously battled among themselves, was attributed to a change in ap­proach by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
The Washington Post remarked that “since inheriting the throne in January, Saudi King Salman has moved forcefully to challenge the expanding regional influence of Iran”. He has also sought to shore up the divided Syrian rebels in coor­dination with Doha and Ankara.
This rapprochement is a conse­quence of deep Arab dismay over the April 2nd framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme be­tween Tehran and US-led powers. This seriously undercut US credibil­ity in Arab eyes.
The rebels’ gains can also be ex­plained by their acquisition of so­phisticated weaponry, including American anti-tank TOW missiles, said Syrian opposition member Radwan Ziadeh.
Regardless of the reasons behind this near-miraculous fusion of re­bel military operations, Assad’s “all corners strategy” has certainly impeded the regime. This strategy spread pro-regime forces in small pockets in distant provinces that are mostly hostile to Assad and his Iranian allies.
This policy is one last explana­tion for the regime’s recent defeats. These converging factors have, for the first time, left Assad’s Alawite bastion in the north gravely ex­posed.
Even so, this does not necessarily mean that Assad’s hold on the coun­try might be irremediably endan­gered since he still controls Syria’s vital areas, namely urban centres in the West and, most essentially, Da­mascus.
However, if reports the rebels are going to get “Arab air cover” in the north and south are confirmed, that will significantly shift the precari­ous balance of power. The Syrian Observer newspaper said the US administration has listened to pro­posals from Turkish and Arab offi­cials to “establish buffer zones”, or provide air cover for fighters trained and equipped in cooperation with the Pentagon.
The Assad regime is no longer po­sitioned to secure an outright mili­tary victory in 2015. A further esca­lation across Syria could jeopardise its control of key terrain positions.