Assad's strategy shift keeps rebels at gates of Damascus

Government forces may have retreated but it seems their tactic is to strengthen the areas that they believe they can hold
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A rebel assault on Damascus has failed to make serious gains in the Syrian capital, diplomats have said, warning that the struggle between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition is now likely to drag on longer than had been expected.

The diplomats say that the Syrian government has adopted a new strategy in recent weeks whereby it withdraws its troops from bases that are indefensible in order to concentrate them in Damascus and other cities it views as strategically crucial. This pull-back enabled the army to launch a successful counter offensive in the past week, relieving the military pressure on the capital and improving its negotiating position.

"The government says it made a strategic choice not to defend smaller outposts," says one analyst in Damascus who did not want to be named.

This means ceding much of the countryside to the rebels, particularly in the north and west of Syria, but by concentrating its forces in population centres the government should be able to hold out for longer against rebel attacks. The opposition announced yesterday that rebel forces had taken the 111th regimental base at Sheikh Suleman near Aleppo, where 100 government soldiers fled.

The planned withdrawals may have given the rebels and the outside world a false impression in November that the government's military position was weaker than it really was and that the end of the conflict was in sight over the next two or three months. In practice, the military balance of power between the two sides is much more evenly balanced.

A diplomat said: "In private, Free Syrian Army commanders admit that their attacks in Damascus had not gone as planned and they suffered losses, but this does not mean that they will not try again."

The road to the international airport, 12 miles south-east of Damascus, was still cut at one point early yesterday, though the airport itself is held by the government. At least one passenger reached it safely by a long detour through south Damascus. But a driver who ventured on to the airport highway closer to the centre of the city says he was greeted "by a volley of shots that went very close to me, so I turned round immediately". The rebels announced this week that they regard the airport as a military target.

A sign of slackening pressure on the capital is that there are fewer incoming mortar rounds or rockets landing in the centre. Most of the firing that resounds across the city is outgoing, often of heavy rockets used against civilian areas. There are often single helicopters in the sky, but the government forces seem to be using them less, possibly because the rebels have captured anti-aircraft weapons and have shot down several planes.

If the government can keep control of most of Damascus, its negotiating position will improve. The capital is full to bursting with people because so many have fled violence elsewhere in the country but do not have the money to go abroad. The streets are clogged with traffic because of the checkpoints, closed roads and increased number of vehicles. Apartments once occupied by refugees from Iraq are now rented out to Syrians, while a small house will contain five or six families.

The government also has a measure of support in Damascus and Aleppo that it does not have in impoverished country villages and small towns. A weakness of the army's tactics in the past is that, while it has the fire power to retake a rebel-held district, it has not had the manpower to keep control of it. In some cases the government is setting up local committees to try to maintain its authority. In others, shantytowns on the outskirts of towns, seen as being likely to support the rebels, have been bulldozed.

There is a growing sense of weariness because the conflict has gone on longer than people expected. There is also a mood of desperation because of the shortage of electricity, high prices and lack of employment. In rebel-held parts of Aleppo there have been demonstrations on recent days in favour of the fundamentalist Jihadi militia Jabhat al-Nusra and against the Free Syrian Army, which is accused of corruption and inability to help the civilian population.

The government's concentration of forces means that there are increasingly large swaths of territory under rebel control. Rebels also hold parts of Aleppo, Homs and Hama. In Aleppo the government is making fewer claims that it will recapture parts of the city held by the rebels, possibly because it wants to use its best units to defend Damascus.

Meanwhile, the rebel military forces have announced a major reorganisation at a conference attended by 500 delegates in Antalya in Turkey with a new 30-member Supreme Council elected along with a new chief of staff.

The two main Jihadi groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, were not invited, though they play an increasing role in the fighting. Many of their militants can draw on military experience gained in Iraq over the past nine years.

It is not clear how much authority the members of the new council will wield unless they can supply weapons, ammunition and money to individual units inside Syria. They are often in the ambivalent position of stressing their secular nature to Western backers while at the same time emphasising their Islamic credentials to supporters in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.