Is Bashar Assad Just Losing Some Ground ... Or His Grip On Power? : Parallels After four years of ebbs and flows in Syria's civil war, rebel fighters are pushing back the president's forces. He's having trouble replacing soldiers. And his allies may be providing less support.
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Is Bashar Assad Just Losing Some Ground ... Or His Grip On Power?

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Is Bashar Assad Just Losing Some Ground ... Or His Grip On Power?

Is Bashar Assad Just Losing Some Ground ... Or His Grip On Power?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is losing ground. After four years of the advantage switching from one side to another in the civil war there, rebel fighters are once again pushing back his forces. Assad is having trouble replenishing his ranks, and his allies appear to be backing away from him. NPR's Alice Fordham reports on what could be a watershed.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: For two weeks, every day's brought news of rebel victories in Syria.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Shouting in foreign language).

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FORDHAM: Footage like this YouTube video is uploaded by rebels. Here, they're in the northern province of Idlib, where in the last month, they've captured the provincial capital, army bases strategic towns.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Shouting in foreign language).

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FORDHAM: NPR spoke via Skype with a rebel spokesman in Idlib. He uses the nickname Abu Yazeed for fear of regime reprisals. He's jubilant.

ABU YAZEED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says, "Thank God. After the liberation of the provincial capital, there was a big wave of hope."

YAZEED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: And Abu Yazeed says the main reason for that victory was a newfound unity, the joining of diverse rebel factions into one operations room. I speak with the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, Lina Khatib. She says the main backers of the opposition, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, used to be at odds.

LINA KHATIB: In the past, Saudi Arabia and Qatar because of their political rivalry, they both supported different groups on the ground.

FORDHAM: Which resulted in fragmentation and infighting among the rebels.

KHATIB: Now that there have been political conversations taking place between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, this is resulting into further cooperation between these different groups.

FORDHAM: But it's not just that rebels are stronger and more unified. According to fighters on both sides and analysts, the Syrian army and its allies are weaker. One French scholar and author on Syria, Fabrice Balanche, says maybe 50,000 soldiers have died and recruitment is sluggish.

FABRICE BALANCHE: And after four years of fighting, the soldiers are tired.

FORDHAM: NPR spoke with people across Syria who described army checkpoints looking for men dodging military service. The hard core of support for Assad comes from the 10 percent of Syrians who share his Alawite faith. But Balanche says now even Alawites often refuse. In Beirut, former Lebanese General Hisham al-Jaber says fighting a guerrilla war has been devastating.

HISHAM AL-JABER: I think the Syrian army - the military power of the Syrian army - still working between 60 percent and 70 percent only.

FORDHAM: NPR spoke with one man in a northern town where most people are Christian or Alawite. He says for years there's been a soldier's funeral at least once a week.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

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FORDHAM: Like this one videoed by a resident, with patriotic songs and shooting in the air. The man's afraid of the regime, so he won't be recorded and he'll only give his last name, Elias. But he says that patriotism's slipping away. And last week, locals shot at recruiters trying to take men away for military service. Plus, in the past, commanders from Syria's powerful friend Iran have led foreign fighters as well as Syrian paramilitaries, bolstering Assad's troops. They're less active now. Lina Khatib, the analyst with Carnegie, thinks Iran is holding back for fear of jeopardizing a nuclear deal.

KHATIB: With Iran, there is an interesting shift. At the moment, Iran is doing the minimum possible to keep the regime alive.

FORDHAM: Alive but weak; and meanwhile, the rebels continue their bloody push forward. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut.

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