Over the last month the U.S. has quietly joined the unofficial effort to arm the Syrian rebels and help them defeat the Assad forces. The rebels are receiving about twice the number of weapons (and ammo) they were getting a month ago. This aid includes more training (in Jordan) for rebel fighters and CIA provided intelligence information about the location, plans, and capabilities of government forces. This aid is not distributed evenly to the rebels, who are divided into over a hundred separate units. These belong to three main factions: moderate/tribal rebels, Islamic radicals, and Kurd militias. Most rebels belong to the moderate/tribal groups, who want a democratic Syria. The Islamic radicals want a religious dictatorship for Syria, while the Kurds want an autonomous northeastern Kurd state (like the Kurds have had in northern Iraq for two decades). Aid is being kept away, as much as possible, from the Islamic radicals. None of the countries supplying this aid (America, Turkey, Jordan, and the Arab Gulf oil states) want an “Islamic Republic” and terrorist sanctuary in Syria. Nor do most Syrians. But the dozen or so Islamic radical factions comprise some of the rebels most fearless and ferocious fighters, as well as about 20 percent of the armed rebels. The other rebel groups don’t want to arm these Islamic terrorists because it’s understood that after the rebellion is over, the moderates and Kurds will have to deal with the Islamic radicals. A negotiated settlement (providing some degree of sanctuary) is possible but unlikely. Another round of fighting is what most rebels expect, since violence is what Islamic radicals are all about.
But first the Assad government must be destroyed and the plan appears to be centered on Damascus. There are about two thousand armed rebels fighting in the outskirts of Damascus, slowly extending their control towards the well-defended city center. The city center includes major government buildings, the commercial districts, major universities, and hospitals plus residential neighborhoods of government supporters. The increased arms supply includes more effective anti-tank rockets and additional mortars (that give the rebels artillery support). More shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles are getting in as well. The Americans and Turks have been training rebel gunmen and leaders. The latter is particularly important because these men are taught how to more effectively use their fighters in combat. The training program also produces combat medics and communications specialists. Better trained and equipped rebel fighters are seen as capable to isolating Damascus and slowly (over weeks or months) destroying the Assad forces there. In response Iran and their Lebanese Hezbollah militia are selecting and training pro-Assad soldiers to be elite infantry capable of performing better in the urban fighting that is increasingly common. Apparently Iran believes more of these specialized troops can defeat the rebels.
When the rebels take Damascus, the Assads will be left with the largely Alawite coastal areas (and ports), plus towns and villages in central Syria that belong to pro-government minorities (Alawites, Christians, Druze, and so on). Rebels can negotiate the surrender of many of these but some will go down fighting. With Damascus gone there will be a lot more army desertions and international support for the rebels as the true government of Syria. Yet the end of this revolution will be messy and likely to drag on for months or even a year or more.
Already some refugees are returning to their homes in areas that are no longer combat zones. These are places where the government forces have been driven out by the rebels. There are still over half a million Syrian refugees outside the country and more than three million inside Syria. But fewer refugees are being created and more of them can now go home.
March 28, 2013: Rebels claim responsibility for setting fire to an Iranian cargo aircraft at the Damascus airport. This transport was believed to be carrying weapons and other supplies for the Assad forces. Despite months of pressure from the United States and other Arab states, Iraq continues to quietly allow these flights, even though its official policy is to block them.
In Damascus rebel mortars began firing shells into the center of the city. Today the shelling killed or wounded over 30 civilians around the university. This shelling has been getting closer and closer to the city center for a month now. The rebels have found hidden firing positions in neighborhoods that are technically under government control. These mortar attacks have been happening with growing frequency, indicating more pro-rebel civilians in central Damascus or more rebel mortar teams in action. To avoid getting caught each incidence of firing shells must be carefully planned, including an escape plan. Then again, some believe these attacks on civilians were staged by the government to make the rebels look bad. When shells land on government military targets its pretty certain that the rebels were behind it.
Rebels are also fighting to secure a road (free of government ground forces) from Jordan to Damascus. This would make it easier to move gunmen, supplies, and weapons to the rebels fighting around Damascus. The rebels continue to clear more troops from border areas and take military bases (including airfields). The base seizures usually come after a prolonged siege that leaves the Assad troops without food and other supplies.
March 27, 2013: The SNC (Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella organization for rebel groups) opened its first embassy in Qatar. Now diplomats working for the Assad government will be under pressure to switch sides (as some already have) and represent the rebel government.
March 26, 2013: The SNC was recognized by the Arab League as the legitimate representative of the Syria. This makes it easier for the SNC to establish official diplomatic relations. At the same time the U.S. refused the SNC request that NATO Patriot anti-aircraft missile batteries on the Turk-Syria border be ordered to shoot down Syrian warplanes operating within their range (which would mean some 50 kilometers into Syria). The SNC points out that these Syrian aircraft are constantly attacking civilians, as well as armed rebels. But the U.S. and NATO are still trying to avoid military involvement in the civil war, as that would mean Arabs would blame the West for everything that goes wrong. There would also be criticism in the West because armed support of the rebels would, indirectly, be aiding the Islamic terrorist rebel factions.
March 24, 2013: Mouaz al Khatib, head of the SNC, resigned. He cited the growing divisions among the many factions. After four days Khatib was persuaded to rescind his resignation and finish his six month term of office. Khatib also opposed the recent selection of a Syrian-American executive to form a rebel government.