Syria’s uprising has shifted from popular street protests against President Bashar al-Assad to a full-fledged war, increasingly influenced by armed Islamists, in a far cry from the idealism of the Arab Spring.
The fervour born in March 2011 for democratic reforms still runs high, but the initial peaceful protests against Assad’s regime have been overtaken by the government forces’ brutal crackdown.
Backed by the country’s Sunni Muslim majority against Assad, whose Alawite faith stems from Shiite Islam, the rebels launched the battle with arms smuggled into Syria, collected by defectors or bought from corrupt army officers.
Now nearly 21 months into the revolt, the insurgents control large swathes of rural territory as well as a number of medium-sized towns, say AFP correspondents on the ground.
In northwest Syria, they hold sway from Aleppo all the way to the Turkish border, although the metropolis itself remains the scene of endless street-to-street clashes.
After advances in the country’s oil-rich but mainly desert east, the battle lines have neared Damascus where the regime is battling to “secure” the capital’s province against what it brands foreign-backed “terrorists.”
Sheikh Tawfiq, a powerful Islamist commander in the Aleppo region, is convinced Assad’s regime is weakening by the day and that it is “the beginning of the end.”
Having failed to recover lost ground, the regime’s military strategy has switched to defending the capital, major cities, strategic main roads and the Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean coast.
Government forces pound rebel-held villages and town districts, apparently regardless of civilian casualties.
On October 18, a bomb dropped by a MiG warplane on an apartment building in the central town of Maaret al-Numan killed more than 40 people, including 22 children, crushed under the rubble, as witnessed by AFP.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has tirelessly documented the bloodshed, more than 42,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed over the past 21 months.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been displaced or forced into exile from villages such as Atme where they wait to cross the barbed wire into Turkey after wading though mud and negotiating olive groves.
The international community, meanwhile, has been reduced to an observer, stumped by divisions within the UN Security Council. Despite mounting diplomatic pressure, Assad has been able to count on the support of both Russia and Iran.
War-hardened, the rebels have also been strengthened by hundreds of foreign volunteers pouring in from Turkey, which openly calls for Assad’s fall.
But the past six months have been marked by a growing Islamisation of the conflict as Al-Nusra Front, suspected of ties to Al-Qaeda, takes a prominent role in the battle for Syria.
Al-Nusra has become active on all the front lines, threatening a takeover of the revolution.
Disciplined and battle-hardened, they are often contrasted with the allegedly “corrupt” revolutionaries in the form of some commanders of the mainstream Free Syrian Army battalions made up mostly of army defectors.
On Monday, rebels led by Al-Nusra seized Sheikh Suleiman base west of Aleppo. A video posted online showed fighters linked to Al-Nusra standing before black flags and reciting the Muslim profession faith inside the abandoned base.
Most FSA members are Syrians, but Al-Nusra has attracted jihadists from across the Muslim world. Their hatred of “non-believers” combined with the regime’s fight-to-the-death mentality adds fuel to the civil war.
The Syrian military, with its vast superiority and control of the skies, is still capable of mounting major operations, although its possible last-resort use of chemical weapons is stirring rising international concern.
In what could prove to be a turning point, AFP witnessed the shooting down of two aircraft in as many days near Darret Ezza in the northwest in late November with surface-to-air missiles which rebels say they seized from the army.
The insurgents say they have light weapons and ammunition as well as communications equipment, but that they still need more sophisticated offensive arms.
Their strategy, in the face of the regular army, the mukhabarat intelligence services and pro-regime “shabiha” militia, has been refined into one of cutting supply lines, choking off large urban centres and besieging isolated garrisons.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]