Rebel Forces Make Major Gains In Syria
In Syria, a top rebel leader says preparations for the "battle of Damascus" have begun. Speaking from his headquarters in northern Syria, the colonel, who defected seven months ago, says the rebels have had a number of battlefield successes over the past month from capturing key military bases in several parts of Syria. He says the rebels now have enough weapons that they've seized from government bases. Military analysts say the balance is tipping in the rebel's favor. Robert Siegel talks to Deborah Amos.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Syrian Air Force jets launched a failed strike today. Their target - a rebel military headquarters in the northern part of the country. But it's the rebels who've been on the offensive lately, seizing four strategic military bases in just the past week. And today, they claim to have captured a hydroelectric dam, on the Euphrates River, that supplies electricity to much of the area.
NPR's Deborah Amos has been following the rebels' offensive, and she joins us now from the city of Gaziantep in Turkey, which is close to the Syrian border. And Deb, what's going on there? Have the rebels gotten better, stronger, smarter; or are the government forces getting weaker; or both?
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: It is both. As many military analysts say, President Bashar al-Assad's military offensive capability is diminished and now, the defensive capability is diminished, too. For the rebels, they're just getting more experienced. And you can see that in the past week - capturing four bases; then on Sunday, a helicopter base less than 15 miles from the heart of the capital.
SIEGEL: Now, I gather, you spoke today with the head of the rebel military council of Aleppo, a northern city where the rebels have been battling government troops for months. How does he see these recent advances?
AMOS: I crossed into northern Syria, and I interviewed Abdul-Jabbar Akidi at his headquarters. And he laughed when I suggested that the regime, and the rebels, were in a stalemate. He said for the rebels of Aleppo, the recent capture of Base 46 - and it's west of the city - was a major breakthrough. It's been under siege for months. It's where the regime forces launched daily artillery strikes on Aleppo. And so for Akidi, the capture of Base 46 showed the experience of the rebels. And here's what he said.
ABDUL-JABBAR AKIDI: (Through translator) First of all, it's a big base. It's an elite base. It was reinforced with tanks, rocket launchers, howitzers.
AMOS: Now, those weapons are in rebel hands. The base also has a strategic importance. It's located on a key highway between Aleppo and the capital of Damascus, so the rebels control the highway, said Akidi.
AKIDI: (Through translator) In this way, we can block all resupplies sent from the regime, to the army in Aleppo.
SIEGEL: But Deb, it seems that the Syrian Air Force still is in control of the skies. How big a deterrent is that, as the rebels try to extend their reach on the ground?
AMOS: It's a problem, but Akidi said it's God that has provided a no-fly zone. What he means, is the weather. It's rainy. There's lots of heavy clouds as the winter sets in, so the airstrikes have diminished. The other thing that we've noticed here, is the number of defections is rising after almost none over the summer; and Akidi's confirmed that there were more. He said that when you have battles, what happens is, it's just easier for some of the soldiers to escape; and some of them do defect.
For the first time, Robert, Akidi said he believed the rebels no longer needed outside help. They have complained for months, that they want the international community to supply anti-aircraft weapons; to take out the air force. Now, he says, the rebels are capturing what they need from the bases that they get from the Syrian military.
SIEGEL: But for all of this confidence, and all the gains of the rebels, it's not as if they've actually taken control of a major city in Syria.
AMOS: We hear again and again, from commanders, that they are focusing on the military bases; amassing weapons before they turn on the city. They know that the Syrian Air Force can still exact huge punishments on these cities. So they have to be sure that they can degrade the air force. We saw this on Sunday. They took a helicopter base; and then the Syrian Air Force dropped cluster bombs at a school, killing more than 10 children.
SIEGEL: And do you think what you're seeing isn't just a swing of the pendulum toward the rebel side; but an actual shift in momentum, in the Syrian civil war?
AMOS: I don't talk to any military analyst who calls this a stalemate anymore. I talked to one today, who said the time may come when the Syrian military can no longer sustain the price in some of these cities - Aleppo, in the north; Deir ez-Zor, in the east - but they may not be capable of a coherent pullback. Now, for the rebels, what they're talking about is going on to Damascus. They say the plans are set. And what we may see is Damascus, the capital of Syria, is the next major battleground.
SIEGEL: Thanks, Deb.
AMOS: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Deborah Amos, reporting from the city of Gaziantep in Turkey, which is near the border with Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.