KILIS, Turkey – Forces loyal to the Syrian government are taking advantage of deepening rifts among Syrias feuding rebels to advance into rebel-held territory in the northern part of the country.
The resignation on Sunday of a top leader in the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army further underscored the extent to which rebel infighting is undermining the effort not only to topple President Bashar Assad but also to hold on to territories won by the opposition in the past two years of conflict.
Col. Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, one of the chief recipients of what little American aid has been provided to the rebels, said he was standing down to protest the rebel bickering, which he blamed for the capture on Friday by Assad loyalists of the strategic town of Safira, southeast of the key city of Aleppo.
The fall of Safira restored a vital supply link between Damascus and government forces holding out in the divided northern city and put regime loyalists on track to challenge other opposition strongholds in the province, almost all of which has been under rebel control for more than a year. Rebel commanders said the town fell after Islamist brigades failed to respond to a call for reinforcements by the Tawheed Brigade, Aleppos biggest battalion, which was forced to flee under a withering aerial bombardment inflicted by the Syrian air force.
The governments advances in the north call into question some of the received wisdom about the state of play on the Syrian battlefield, a constantly shifting procession of skirmishes, sieges, offensives and counteroffensives that for many months have amounted to a stalemate. While the government has succeeded in reinforcing its hold over the central provinces of Homs and Damascus in recent months, the rebels have been consolidating their grip in the north, a divide that is expected to underpin peace talks that the United States and Russia are hoping to sponsor in Geneva this month.
If the rebels are unable to hold ground in the north, the calculus of the Geneva peace conference also will shift, said an opposition figure who asked not to be identified because the issue is sensitive. The opposition will be less inclined to attend at a time when it is losing, and Assad will have no reason to compromise at all, he said.
A mood of panic rippled across rebel-held Aleppo over the weekend as residents who believed the government had been expelled for good contemplated the prospect that neighborhoods could be contested again.
People are so scared, said Zakaria Ahmed, 39, an Aleppo businessman who traveled on Sunday to the Turkish border town of Kilis after a night of intense shelling by government forces. It seems the Free Syrian Army is incapable of defending even themselves, let alone the people.