Last week, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying that “This year the active phase of military action in Syria will be over.” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah sounded a similar note, stating, “The danger of the Syrian regime’s fall has ended.” They do not believe the military situation in Syria is a stalemate. As a Syrian who closely follows events in Syria, takes frequent trips to the region, and talks to rebel commanders and activists, I do not believe so either.
Yet I find that many Syria ‘experts’ in the United States are dangerously behind the curve. Early in 2012, a number of these experts sought to convince the American public that the Syrian Revolution was a rural revolt. At the time, former neighbors of mine from the upscale Damascus area of Mezzeh were telling me of protests a mere ten-minute walk from the Presidential Palace. By July 2012, rebel fighters were mounting a serious offensive on the capital.
The consensus among many of these experts today is that the situation in Syria is a “stalemate.” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns made this claim on March 6 at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. All expert witnesses at a second Senate Foreign Relations hearing last month made an identical claim. But activists and commanders on the ground provide a very different assessment. They say that the opposition’s main stronghold of Aleppo City is in serious danger.
The situation in Sheikh Najjar, an industrial town six miles northeast of Aleppo, provides a case in point. I spent a few nights in Sheikh Najjar when I visited Aleppo soon after it was liberated in 2012. The town appeared relatively safe; though shelling could be heard in the distance, none fell on the town itself. Sheikh Najjar housed the new province-wide Aleppo Transitional Council, and in March 2013, the Aleppo Council organized Syria’s first democratic provincial elections in fifty years.
Increasingly dire reports from Sheikh Najjar over the past month, however, indicate that the town is near-empty of civilians due to months of fierce barrel-bombings by the Assad regime. Regime forces are slowly gaining territory on the ground, from which rebels work to dislodge them in furious block-by-block clashes. The Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS)—a transnational terror group so radical even al-Qaeda disowned it—has entered into a de facto alliance with Assad by attacking rebel forces and sparing regime targets. According to rebel commanders, a regime conquest of Sheikh Najjar would enable a suffocating siege on opposition neighborhoods in Aleppo City—hardly a stalemate.
The truth is that Syrian rebel forces have suffered a series of significant defeats since last June, when fighters from Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, first flooded into Syria to fight for Assad. Rebel forces remain highly viable, but they are losing ground due to decisive foreign intervention by Russia, Iran, and pro-Assad foreign fighters from Iraq and Lebanon.
In Syria’s central Homs Province, once dubbed the “Capital of the Revolution,” rebels have lost their bastion of Khalidiya in Homs City and the strategic towns of Qusair and Telkalakh. On March 20, the regime scored a key symbolic victory by capturing Hosn town, along with its famed Crusader castle. This week, the regime rejected a peace offer from the rebels in the besieged neighborhoods of the city and has since escalated its offensive to take over the last rebel-held areas after laying siege to these quarters for nearly two years.
Between Homs and the capital Damascus lies the Qalamun Mountain Range, which contains multiple supply routes to Lebanon. Hezbollah and regime forces have captured a string of Qalamun towns since November. With the fall of Yabrud on March 16 and Rankus last Wednesday, rebel forces are all but defeated in the Qalamun.
Rebel-held towns south of Damascus remain a threat to the regime due to their proximity to the capital. To neutralize this threat, regime forces have enacted crippling sieges on the southern Damascus suburbs. Starving populations in these suburbs have been coerced into bogus “ceasefires” in which rebels surrender strategic advantages for food.
Now, regime forces are taking the fight to Aleppo. In November, they captured the main town southeast of Aleppo City and cut off one of two eastern supply roads to the city. In January, they cut off the remaining eastern supply road and recaptured their first neighborhood in Aleppo City proper. Regime forces captured territory in Aleppo City as late as March 26, and continue their gains in and around Sheikh Najjar.
Rebels nonetheless retain the capacity to launch significant offensives that could change the course of the war. In early January, rebels launched an unprecedented offensive against ISIS. Within a week, they had routed ISIS from about 85 percent of its territory in Idlib and 65 percent of its territory in Aleppo. ISIS has yet to recover most of this formerly-extensive territory. Rebels in this offensive were buoyed by the formation of new moderate rebel fighting coalitions and by large mass protests against ISIS.
Additionally, rebels since March 21 have launched an offensive against regime forces in the Assad family’s home province of Latakia. This operation took most observers by surprise, caused panic among regime supporters, and led to the death of Assad’s cousin and National Defense Forces commander Hilal al-Assad in a rocket attack. It also put rebels in control of the Kessab border crossing, a highly strategic position. While a sustained offensive might relieve pressure on opposition battlefronts across the country and bring the situation back to stalemate, it is unclear if the rebels can hold this new territory.
The rebel takeover of Kessab, a town of roughly 1500 ethnic Armenians in Latakia, prompted understandable concern within the Armenian diaspora. Contrary to the pro-regime propaganda of a “sectarian massacre,” however, Armenian parliamentarian Teghan Poghosyan reported after visiting Kessab that no Armenians were killed. Kessab Mayor Vazgen Chaparyan refuted a video of alleged massacres against Armenians. This means that the most recent massacre of minorities was perpetrated by Assad forces, who killed at least 20 Turkman civilians in the town of Zara on March 8.
The moderate Syrian opposition maintains the capacity not only to win militarily, but also to transition into a post-Assad Syria for all Syrians. They are fighting ISIS, safeguarding the rights of minorities, and continuing their struggle against the Assad dictatorship. Even at this late stage, serious international support would decisively propel the moderate opposition to triumph. But time is running out. Misguided assessments of a “stalemate” in Syria only deceive the public into discounting the urgency of the situation. If mainstream rebels in Syria are defeated, radical extremist groups (including Hezbollah and ISIS) will turn Syria into a transnational terror launch pad. The United States would then be forced to address this new vital threat to its national security without local partners.
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is senior political adviser, strategist, and government relations director for the Syrian American Council in Washington.