The Syrian government is eliminating the last rebel strongholds in the centre of the country along the crucial road linking Damascus to Homs and to Tartous on the coast. These areas have always been essential for it to maintain its grip on power.
At the same time, the rebels have launched offensives from places where they have strength, notably against Latakia province just south of the Turkish border and West Aleppo, which is a government bastion that has been under attack since 3 April. Rebel-held parts of Aleppo, most of whose inhabitants have fled, are being pounded by barrel bombs dropped by helicopters while rebels have been firing rockets and shells into the government controlled west of the city.
Homs was once the centre of the popular uprising in 2011 but opposition fighters now hold only some of the ruins in the old city. Many of its remaining inhabitants left under UN auspices in February, but a core of militant fighters stayed behind. Other rebel held areas in Homs have fallen and hundreds of thousands of Sunni have fed into al-Waer district in the west of the city which sealed off by the Syrian army.
In some parts of Homs life continues as normal though there were two recent car bombings inflicting heavy casualties. Other fought-over neighbourhoods have become ‘ghost districts’ and are uninhabited, their old population having fled to Lebanon or Tartous. The army has been systematically sealing off and capturing opposition enclaves in western Homs province such as that around the Crusader fortress of Krak des Chevaliers.
The main government effort at the moment is to clear the Qalamoun mountain region west of the main road linking Damascus and Homs and along the Lebanese border. Yabroud, long a rebel base, was captured after heavy fighting and in the last few days the army has taken the ancient Christian village of Maaloula. The last rebel strongpoint still holding out is Zabadani on the Lebanese border. In these battles fighters from the Lebanese paramilitary movement Hezbollah are acting as highly effective assault troops. They have also been committed in Aleppo this month to stop the rebel attacks underlining the government’s lack of combat-ready troops.
The rebel attacks in the north reflect a number of important changes. The intra-rebel civil war in which the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has been fighting other groups has ebbed in these areas (though not on the Iraqi border). This allows the opposition fighters to resume their war with government forces. In this part of Syria they have the advantage of an open 500-mile long Turkish border across which they can advance and retreat.
A further feature of recent fighting is that the opposition side has been led by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qa’ida, and by other jihadi groups. In Latakia, the surprise attack on government positions was reportedly led by Chechen and Moroccan fighters who were initially able to break into an Alawite area where the government is strongly supported, as well as the Armenian village of Kassab.