Mideast conflicts have a nasty habit of occurring all at once. And while all eyes have been on Gaza and Israel this past week, several major diplomatic and military developments have occurred on the Syrian front -- some of which may prove decisive to the end game of a 20-month old crisis.
The rebels are winning. The insurgents on the ground in Syria appear to be winning more and more territory and confiscating more and more high-grade materiel from President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Just as Operation Pillar of Defense was kicking off over Gaza on Nov. 14, the Free Syrian Army took the entire city of al-Bukamal along the Iraqi border, where they also sacked two major airbases, giving the opposition a strong military foothold in Syria's easternmost province, a vital smuggling route for weapons.
The rebels then claimed a massive victory on the night of Nov. 18, sacking the Syrian Army's 46th Regiment, 15 miles west of Aleppo, after a 50 day-long siege. The real score, though, was in confiscated materiel: Rebels made off with tanks, armored vehicles, Type-63 multiple rocket launchers, artillery shells, howitzers, mortars, and even SA-16 surface-to-air missiles. Gen. Ahmed al-Faj of the Joint Command, a consortium of different rebel battalions, told the Associated Press: "There has never been a battle before with this much booty." (For a seemingly comprehensive video accounting of the rebel haul, check out Brown Moses's blog.)
The gains have only continued in the past week. On Nov. 20, rebels hit the Syrian Information Ministry in Damascus with two mortar rounds and stormed an air defense base at Sheikh Suleiman, about 11 miles from the Turkish border, where they seized stocks of explosives before withdrawing to elude retaliatory air strikes. "Assad's forces use the base to shell many villages and towns in the countryside," one rebel said. "It is now neutralized."
There are also signs that bigger gains are on the way. It's "March to Damascus Week" for the revolutionaries, as a multi-pronged offensive has taken shape in and around the capital. On Nov. 19, Ansar al-Islam and Jund Allah Brigades, two Islamist rebel groups, seized the Syrian Air Defense Battalion headquarters near Hajar al-Aswad, just south of Damascus. Another base in Ghouta, a region in the Damascus countryside, was also sacked. Opposition forces are also holding Daraya, a southwest suburb of the capital, despite days of intense aerial bombardment from Assad's Republican Guard.
This map, courtesy of the wonderfully obsessive EA Worldview website, shows how rebel operations have arrived right at Assad's doorstep the last 48 hours. Meanwhile, as EA Worldview's Jim Miller points out, the Syrian north is now effectively anti-Assad country: "The regime has not won a noteworthy military victory in this territory in over two months."
Syria's political opposition is getting its act together. The six Gulf Cooperation Council member states, France, Libya, Turkey and Britain have now all recognized the Syrian National Coalition, which was formed in Doha on Nov. 11, as "the" (not "a," an important distinction in diplomatese) legitimate representative of the Syrian people, in effect making it the new government-in-exile for all those countries. The anti-Assad opposition group has even appointed its own ambassador to France, Munzer Makhous, an Alawite with a background in academia, no doubt selected to signpost its minority-friendly inclusiveness. These moves have led to intense speculation about whether Western countries are prepared to supply the rebels with military assistance, or even the possibility of an Anglo-French-led effort at intervention.