Revolutions don’t succeed until the capital starts wavering. Bashar al-Assad knows this and has, so far, managed to assert his authority over Damascus and Syria’s second city, Aleppo. That much was true until earlier this week when rebels launched a massive assault on both cities, coinciding with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Buoyed by a suicide bombing which killed four members of Assad’s inner circle last week, we are now into the heaviest period of fighting inside Syria’s main cities. Assad has managed to maintain some calm in Damascus, but parts of Aleppo have now fallen into rebel control.
Khaled Habous, head of the Damascus military council of the Free Syrian Army, struck a bullish tone about the FSA’s prospects in a recent interview. ‘Before the end of this holy month of Ramadan it will be over,’ he said. That would mean victory by no later than 19 August.
The Free Syrian Army deserves credit for having taken the initiative against Assad, but Habous is guilty of overselling. Yes, the FSA has moved into new terrain and given residents in major urban centres the confidence to protest, but they are still hopelessly outgunned.
When Assad’s forces struggled to regain control of Aleppo he bombed the city with fixed wing aircraft, a dramatic escalation of the conflict. So far, he has only used helicopter gunships to launch airborne attacks. Bringing military jets into the equation may illuminate his growing desperation, but also demonstrates the overwhelming superiority of his arsenal. This was underscored with menace when his official spokesman made sneering remarks about the country’s chemical arsenal, warning it could be deployed against ‘foreign aggressors’.
Assad’s velvet dictatorship cannot survive – but talk of an imminent victory is overstated. The rebels have the wind in their sails, but are facing a desperate and defiant regime willing to do whatever it takes to retain power. Without more sophisticated weaponry, the FSA will struggle to tip the balance of power decisively in their favour.