After Stalemate, Regime Troops Gain Against Syrian Rebels

The Syrian army has been gaining significant ground against the rebels around the capital and in the north city of Aleppo. Analysts say the regime has better allies, superior fire-power and in this sectarian battle, has finally integrated Shiite forces from Hezbollah into a formidable force that is effective against disunited rebels.

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Activists in Syria claim that a bombing in a government building yesterday killed more than 30 Syrian soldiers, including four generals. That would be a blow to the government. But most of the news out of Syria recently has been about rebel losses. For example, a major rebel leader died overnight in a hospital in Turkey.

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He'd led thousands of fighters around the northern city of Aleppo until he was hit by government shelling last week. Rebels have, in fact, suffered many setbacks in their war against President Bashar al-Assad. In recent months, troops loyal to the government have made big gains on the ground. That makes it harder to say that Assad's defeat is inevitable.

INSKEEP: And that in turn affects the effort to bring about peace talks. The regime's advances are changing fundamental ideas about the war. NPR's Deborah Amos has been covering this war since its early days.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Can one side actually win on the battlefield in Syria? It's a question some analysts have started to ask as regime loyalists rack up significant gains on two fronts. Military analyst Jeffrey White, who closely watches the wave of videos coming from the battlefront, says he's considering what the latest gains mean.

JEFFREY WHITE: Maybe the regime is capable of actually achieving, you know, a military defeat of the rebel forces, at least in some key areas.

AMOS: The key areas: the suburb south of Damascus, where government troops have recently routed rebels from a string of neighborhoods on the doorstep of the capital. In the north, the regime threat to rebels in Aleppo was so grave, that rebel commanders sent out emergency calls for all fighters to head to the front. A regime victory, even a limited one, says White, undermines U.S. assumptions about ending the war, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's call for compromise between warring sides.

WHITE: There's this notion that Kerry and others keep talking about, that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. But I think we really need to think about maybe there is.

AMOS: The regime is unlikely to retake all rebel-held areas, says White. But recent gains show the momentum has shifted. Is the Syrian army stronger, or the rebels weaker? Analysts say it's a bit of both. Mainstream rebel groups backed by the West and Saudi Arabia have been weakened by in-fighting, challenged by radical Islamist brigades, some of them tied to al-Qaida. Says Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, there's an unprecedented fragmentation, he says.

SHASHANK JOSHI: They've been their own worst enemies, and they have faced a regime that enjoys greater external backing.

AMOS: The backing comes from Russia and Iran. In a war that's become a regional, sectarian fight, Syria's military command has successfully integrated Shiite fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, Shiites from Iraq, as well as Syrian loyalists who've been trained in Iran. The latest military offensive is a sign of confidence, he says.

JOSHI: Defenses like this, they have their own military logic, of course, but I think they also serve as a way of exploiting what is seen as a favorable political and diplomatic situation for the regime.

AMOS: The Assad government has been on a political roll since the summer, according to regional analysts, after the U.S. abandoned threatened military strikes and joined Russian in a plan to dismantle Syria's chemical arsenal. The rebels had pinned their hopes on U.S. retaliation after poison gas attacks on the Damascus suburbs in August. Now, says White, the regime is pressing its advantage on the ground, especially in the northern city of Aleppo, largely divided between the regime and the rebels for more than a year.

WHITE: As long as the regime can continue to put energy into its attack, keeps, you know, enough forces there to maintain the attack, the rebels are, I think, you know, under a lot of pressure and in trouble.

AMOS: The pressure comes over the fight for Aleppo's international airport, closed in February after rebels seized a military base at the edge of the airfield. In recent days, the regime has waged a relentless assault, says Emile Hokayem, Middle East analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Rebel brigades have rallied. The outcome is crucial for control of Syria's largest city.

EMILE HOKAYEM: If Aleppo were to fall in regime hands, that would be a major blow, perhaps the major blow to the opposition ever since, I would say, 2011.

AMOS: Since the early days of the revolt, the regime has had the advantage of a united military force, says Hokayem, but the rebels have only grown more fractured.

HOKAYEM: The regime has adapted pretty well to the nature of the challenge it was facing. But it also, you know, benefited from massive, massive support from abroad, a kind of support that is not matched at all by what the rebels are getting.

AMOS: He says president Bashar al-Assad is demonstrating that he has the upper hand over a divided opposition, ahead of any possible peace talks in Geneva.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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