After nearly two years of fighting, Syria’s vaunted war machine is showing serious cracks as emboldened rebels snap up more bases and airfields and force army units to retrench behind defensive lines in major cities, Western officials and military analysts say.
Bolstered by a steady flow of arms from foreign backers, opposition forces have scored a series of tactical victories in the Damascus suburbs in recent days and are advancing steadily toward the city’s airport, adding to what some analysts view as a sense of momentum that has been building since late summer.
The fighting goes on in Syria between rebel forces and the government, with both sides trying to make gains in the suburbs of Damascus, strongholds for the opposition.
Syrian uprising: A year in turmoil
Powerful antitank and antiaircraft weapons have helped level what was once a lopsided contest, the officials say, so much so that army commanders have been unable or unwilling to challenge rebel assaults on large military bases on the capital’s outskirts.
“The regime isn’t intervening to defend its positions,” said Jeffrey White, a former Middle East military analyst with the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. “And when it does try to counterattack, it often fails.”
Extremist groups among the Syrian opposition are responsible for some of the gains. Rebel commanders and outside analysts say the groups have grown more
powerful in recent months because of funding and weapons from wealthy Arab donors in the Persian Gulf region as well as Syrian businessmen outside the country.
One Islamist militia with suspected ties to al-Qaeda has seized two government military bases in the past two weeks.
Several independent military experts have pointed to a perceptible shift in the rebels’ fortunes beginning in mid-November, around the time reports began to surface of Syrian helicopters and planes being shot down by shoulder-fired missiles. Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials say up to 40 of the portable antiaircraft missile systems have been smuggled into rebel-held parts of Syria since late summer.
But analysts say the opposition’s successes also reflect the degraded state of the Syrian army, which appears to be running low on supplies and morale. White, the former DIA analyst, said the rebels “are getting better, with better equipment and more of it, but it’s also true that the government’s troops are being worn down.”
Military experts cautioned that the fighting is likely to drag on, barring a surprise development such as the assassination or abdication of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Joseph Holliday, a former U.S. Army officer and senior researcher at the Institute for the Study of War who has examined the capabilities of Syrian rebels, said a decisive victory could be several months, if not years, away.
Holliday said rebel squads have shown increasing tactical skills and deployed momentum-changing weapons, including roadside bombs and antiaircraft missiles. The bombs have limited the movement of Syrian troops and the antiaircraft guns have forced Syrian pilots to fly at higher altitudes, he said. The net result is that the Syrian military has surrendered critical territory and appears to lack the resources to regain ground.