Syrian rebels riding momentum to Damascus

The fighting follows a number of gains for opposition forces in the north of Syria, which has sparked optimism among Syrians hoping for the downfall of the Assad regime. 

After avoiding much of the sustained fighting seen throughout Syria over the course of the nation’s 20-month revolution turned civil war, Damascus entered its fifth day of ongoing clashes on Tuesday.

According to activist reports, opposition forces have been fighting with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the capital city’s southern suburbs and near the airport. “People here in Damascus haven’t been really under real shelling so they are scared,” says Leena al-Shami, one of the founders of the Damascus Media Office.

Throughout the capital, Ms. Shami says, the Assad Army is now installing more checkpoints and most residents avoid leaving their home as they brace for what many expect will be heavy battles and shelling.

The fighting in Damascus follows a number of gains for opposition forces in the north of Syria in recent weeks, which, despite the concerns of those in the capital, has sparked optimism among Syrians hoping for the downfall of the Assad regime. While the progress is significant, a number of analysts caution that opposition groups are far from a victory.

“There is a good deal of optimism, especially in Damascus and the suburbs and villages around Damascus. The FSA is closing in on the capital,” says Mohammed Ghanem, director of strategy for the Syrian-American Council. “But I don’t think that this means we’re just a few days away from the collapse of the Assad regime.”

Opposition forces now say that they’re focused on cutting government supply lines to the north to isolate government troops there, forcing them into a battle of attrition. Rebels, who have long struggled to advance due to Syria's air force, also secured a boost last week when they used surface-to-air missiles to shoot down a helicopter and a jet.

“Back in January we were saying that the regime could go anywhere and do anything it wanted to with its forces, and the rebels couldn’t stop them. Then, by this summer we were saying the rebels could stop them, and the regime was having great difficultly putting the offensive power together to conduct a counter-offensive operation,” says Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Now we’re seeing that the regime is having trouble defending places that it’s been able to hold throughout the war.”

There are now reports that government troops are not able to send reinforcements to Aleppo as they prepare to defend the capital from what may be a major Free Syrian Army offensive.

Despite these gains, opposition forces remain largely outgunned and it is too early to tell if last week’s downed aircraft were the beginning of a pattern or a matter of chance.

Chemical weapons concerns

Meanwhile, Western officials now allege that the Assad regime has moved its chemical weapons, prompting US President Obama to reiterate that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would trigger an American intervention.

So far, the US now provides opposition forces with some communication equipment, but no weapons. In fact, Western nations have expressed little willingness to become involved or extend direct support to rebel forces.

Given present circumstances, Aram Nerguizian, a Syria expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the battlefield advantage is most likely to resemble a pendulum in the coming weeks and months, as both sides shift and change tactics.

He adds, however, that if Assad does fall, the country is unlikely to move toward a moderate future amid an emerging culture of warlordism and militias now evolving inside Syria.

“Guys with guns will dictate the future. Guys with guns are usually plural in Syria, predominately Sunni, more conservative, have less education, and would not necessarily know what to do with a transition plan if and when it becomes available,” he says.

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