Iraq imposed a curfew on the Qaim area to prevent infiltration by insurgents on either side of the border and has dispatched 1,500 soldiers to the border area, Fteikhan said. Iraqi troops are also restoring barbed-wire fences that were erected by U.S. forces and then dismantled when they left.
Similar scenes unfolded Thursday at the Bab Hawa crossing point on the Turkish border, with rebels seen tearing down Assad posters and firing AK-47s into the air in a video posted online.
But a rebel on the border who asked to be identified by his alias, Mutassim al-Sarmadawi, later said the rebels withdrew from the post Thursday night after threats by government forces to launch a major attack on the nearby village of Sarmadi.
The incident illustrated the seesawing nature of the conflict in Syria’s countryside, where towns routinely change hands every few weeks and neither side has been able to gain a decisive advantage. That may change after Wednesday’s bombing, by emboldening soldiers who had previously been afraid to defect.
Sarmadawi said a group of about 40 soldiers escaped from the Bab Hawa customs post and approached the rebels late Wednesday, saying they wanted to defect and would help the rebels take over the crossing point.
“ ‘We swear to God we wanted to defect before, but we couldn’t,’ ” Sarmadawi quoted the soldiers as saying. “ ‘But our commanders are now in chaos. They have lost control.’ ”
When fighters reached the post the next day, the remaining soldiers either joined the rebels or slipped away.
But the incident also underscored the regime’s capacity to bring overwhelming force to bear against the lightly armed guerrillas when it chooses, making for what could be a prolonged battle across the country.
“There are obvious signs that the regime is cracking, but I don’t think things will just tip over,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The government has not brought all its resources into play and could make greater use of combat helicopters, start using fixed-wing bombers and resort to the use of chemical weapons.
“There are several ways it can accelerate,” Tabler said.
With Assad’s grip slipping even in Damascus, there was a growing sense that it may be only a matter of time before his regime crumbles.
The capital has begun to resemble a battleground, with fighting between rebels and pro-government forces reported in many Damascus neighborhoods Thursday. Army snipers spread across rooftops in the Mezze area, and helicopters were targeting rebel fighters in the neighborhood of Barzeh, according to the Revolution Leadership Council of Damascus, an opposition group.
Government forces were also shelling several outlying neighborhoods as a sense of fear spread across the city. Many stores were closed, and there were sporadic blackouts and Internet outages.
“I have been a prisoner at home for the last three days,” Abed, a Qaboun resident, said. “I’m left with no bread and three bags of frozen vegetables.”
Reuters reported that about 20,000 Syrians had crossed the border into Lebanon in the past 24 hours. Wael Khalidi, the director of a nongovernmental organization called Syrian Refugees Affairs, said he thought the number was much lower. “We are afraid the Lebanese authorities will stop allowing refugees in and we will be in big trouble,” he said.
Dehghanpisheh reported from Beirut. Uthman al-Mukhtar in Fallujah, Iraq, Suzan Haidamous and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut, Jabbar Yaseen in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.