Free Syrian Army soldiers inspect a destroyed tank in Jisr al Shughour in Idlib Province
In the last week, the Free Syrian Army has won a series of victories in Idlib Province in the northwest and just outside Damascus, eroding the position of the Assad regime.
Is this the end of the story of "stalemate"?
It could be argued that the battle for Aleppo is frozen in time, with little to no progress made by either side. Homs has been reduced to little more than rubble, with President Assad's forces slowly advancing through insurgent-held areas. While the Free Syrian Army is capable of the occasional dramatic attack in Damascus, it is in no position to take the capital.
But the look of stalemate can be deceiving. As in a game of Jenga, the Assad army's progress has come at the price of stability. While little has changed in Aleppo or Homs or Damascus, much has been altered in Idlib and Deir Ez Zor.
Indeed, the regime's Jenga game may have fallen in Idlib Province, as the Free Syrian Army has taken control of large chunks of territory along the Turkish border. The insurgents now have depth behind their lines, and they are backed by Ankara's threat to Syrian forces about shelling of the area.
On Tuesday, Free Syrian Army forces captured most of the town of Ma'arrat al Nouman, won a series of victories further north along the road to Aleppo, and carried out attacks near the Turkish border. On the map below, the area in blue shows the FSA's established control and that in green shows territory which may have bee taken. In effect, the Free Syrian now holds more than 60 square kilometres in this corner of Idlib Province alone, alongside areas north of Aleppo under FSA control and those northeast of Aleppo which are in Kurdish hands:
View Syria - 2012 October 10 - EA Worldview in a larger map
On Wednesday, the regime's efforts to retake Ma'arrat al Nouman failed, as the FSA ambushed several large convoys of soldiers and heavy equipment and destroyed many armoured vehicles. Sources suggest that some convoys left Hama, but were confronted on the road near Khan Sheikhoun when they stopped to attack the local populace. After dozens of civilians were killed, FSA brigades attacked. Reuters reports that another convoy, consisting of "hundreds" of regime armoured vehicles, was stopped cold as it tried to retake Ma'arrat al Nouman. (There are reports from multiple sources in FSA brigades that insurgents captured the major military base near the town; however, this has not been independently confirmed by EA WorldView.)
So a key town on the major highway that connects central Syria (Hama, Homs, then Damascus and Daraa) to northern Syria (Idlib, Aleppo) has fallen to the Free Syrian Army, cutting off the regime's supply route to its largest cities in the north. Dozens of vehicles, which may be valuable as the battle progresses, have been captured by the opposition.
The regime may retake Ma'arrat al Nouman and other towns on Idlib's main highways, but at what price? Then there is the difficulty of retaking the territory near the Turkish border: the mountainous terrain is the favourite ambush spot for the FSA, and Turkey's artillery lies just a few kilometres away.
From these border positions, the FSA will continue to push west, into Lattakia's mountains, and east, posing a threat to Idlib's main cities. This constant threat to Assad's supply lines will have to be answered/ This is Jenga, where to make progress the regime has to sacrifice the very pieces that have offered stability --- tanks, soldiers, and possibly aircraft.
Moreover, this should be seen --- even amid the supposed "stalemate" --- as only the latest in a series of events. In late August, the FSA overran the largest and most important airbase in the region, Abu Duhur, destroying a MiG fighter jet, armoured vehicles, and 8-12 helicopters on the ground and two in the air. The regime retook the territory as the insurgents withdrew, but the FSA had provent that it can strike even hardened targets and military bases.
The Free Syrian Army is also displaying an increasing level of co-ordination. Brigades from Hama are fighting in Idlib and Aleppo; brigades from Homs, Damascus, and Daraa are fighting in Al Raqqah and Idlib. Nowhere was this more evident than in East Ghouta, near the capital.
Last Friday, a helicopter was shot down and an airbase was captured by the FSA in the suburb. Only today, however, have we realised the significance of the attacks. Dozens of videos put together the picture of the FSA's attack, planned for weeks. Brigades launched coordinated attacks on a hardened base with different weapons from different angles, but under a unified strategy. The FSA quickly overran the base's defenses, killed or captured the majority of the garrison, destroyed dozens of military vehicles, surface-to-air missile sites, and anti-aircraft guns. Most importantly, the FSA captured fully operational SA-8 anti-aircraft weapons, capable of shooting down helicopters and even fighter jets, as well as dozens of other missile batteries.
This video, the most comprehensive, shows the mission from the point of view of the Al Farouk brigade ---- from planning stages in a board room, to execution of the battle, to removal of the spoils:
A clear video showing the FSA in possession of the SA-8:
This is not a stalemate. As the regime struggles to win back Homs and Aleppo, it is losing ground in Deir Ez Zor, where it lost another MiG fighter jet on Friday), Lattakia, and Idlib Province. Even in Damascus, some of the regime's key defences are ravaged by FSA attacks. The possession of these new weapons --- assuming they are operable and the FSA knows how to use them --- could further turn the tide of battle.
Yet the FSA is playing its own Jenga game as well. It is running out of ammunition in places like Homs and Aleppo, and a sudden collapse of resistance in those cities is not out of the question. Nor can the moral and ethical questions that haunt the FSA's steps be shaken off. While the regime is capable of atrocities, the FSA has many in its ranks who have committed crimes, and where the insurgency strikes, retaliation against civilians is sure to follow. Ma'arrat al Nouman, though it was not retaken by Assad forces, was shelled and bombed heavily in the next 48 hours. Videos show massive destruction, bodies trapped in rubble, and whole neighborhoods turned to dust:
If the tide is turning against the Assad regime, as it appears to be, its collapse is still not imminent. In fact, if the strength of the Assad regime is ebbing, then this may just bring the horrors of war to new places, ones closer to the capital.