The fact that the United States is now committing itself militarily to the rebels at a time when Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement are escalating their support for Assad draws the United States inexorably into what is rapidly becoming a global proxy war for control of Syria, analysts said.
“The general direction of travel is toward greater Western involvement,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
The White House on Thursday said that the United States will for the first time send direct military assistance to the Syrian rebels, following the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Syrian government had used small quantities of chemical weapons in its efforts to defeat the armed rebellion.
It also followed months of battlefield setbacks for those seeking Assad’s ouster, culminating last week in the loss of the strategic western town of Qusair near Lebanon’s border to a force in which Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement played a leading role.
On Friday, government forces launched their heaviest attack in months against rebel-held areas in the divided northern city of Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital, pounding rebel positions with artillery and attempting to break through rebel lines in the frontline neighborhood of Sakhour.
The push fell short of the full-scale offensive to retake the city that has been widely touted as imminent. Rebel leaders say they are confident they can withstand a government assault in the north, where the regime’s supply lines are stretched and the rebels have access to the Turkish border, a key source of weapons supplies, whether from the black market or the Persian Gulf countries that have been supporting them. It would also be one of the likely routes for any U.S. weapons supplies.
“On the Aleppo front we are the most powerful and we are putting the regime and Hezbollah under pressure,” said Col. Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, head of the military council in Aleppo, who returned to the city Thursday from Qusair after the rebel rout.
But the loss of Qusair and the threat of a government assault in Aleppo underscored a growing sense of desperation among the rebels that they are being forced onto the defensive after nearly a year of battlefield gains that saw them seize control of large swaths of territory in the north and east of the country.
Instead, the regime is steadily gaining ground in the crucial battle for control of the suburbs ringing Damascus and is routing the rebels in the central province of Homs, putting Assad in a strong position to retain control of the capital.