In Damascus you can trace the progress of the war by noting the train and bus schedules. The passenger trains stopped operating six months ago while the bus schedules change regularly, with busses no longer running to more and more suburban areas and neighborhoods where the rebels are advancing. This year the rebels are always advancing. While the pro-Assad neighborhoods try to carry on their pre-war lives, you can’t ignore the sounds of artillery and machine-gun fire. The list of shortages grows and more people are no longer around, having left the country on “extended vacations.” The government has been making an effort to reverse rebel progress around Damascus and has been withdrawing troops from other parts of the country (abandoning efforts to contest many border areas or largely Sunni eastern Syria). The government still talks about outlasting the rebels and winning in the end, but fewer and fewer pro-Assad Syrians believe it.
The army continues to suffer desertions and commanders are under orders to do whatever it takes to halt the losses, or at least carry out revenge attacks to kill the deserters or local civilians who might have aided them. This is one reason why over half of the casualties have been civilians and not soldiers or armed rebels. The air force has largely given up trying to hit the elusive rebel fighters and instead goes for the obvious civilians targets (hospitals, markets, any area showing signs of civilians out and about). At the same time the rebels have become better at shooting down aircraft and helicopters (with missiles or heavy machine-guns) and the air force is running out of fuel and spare parts needed to keep aircraft in the air. The air force is seen in the air less and less.
The United States is providing more aid for refugees and, less openly, increasing training and intelligence support for rebels it considers “safe” (not Islamic terrorists). This is in recognition of the fact that the rebels are simultaneously fighting to overthrow the Assad government while also preparing for the civil war (between Islamic radicals and democratic factions) that will take place after the rebellion is over. Western nations are very concerned about Islamic terror groups gaining control over all or part of Syria and turning that into another terrorist sanctuary (as Iran, Sudan, and parts of Pakistan now are). In reality, Syria has always been an Islamic terrorist sanctuary, as was Iraq before Saddam Hussein was overthrown. In both countries Islamic terrorists were allowed to hide out but had to coordinate attacks with the government to avoid blowback on their hosts. In a post-Assad Syria the Islamic terror groups plan to be less discreet and more violent.
Iranian support for the beleaguered Assad government of Syria has not diminished. A growing number of pro-Assad fighters are being flown to Iran for training in special urban fighting and irregular warfare tactics. Iran is helping Assad to build a special infantry force of men trained in urban warfare. Iran is paying for support from the Hezbollah Shia militia of Lebanon, which is supplying Assad with gunmen and supplies. Many Syrians (especially the Sunni majority) believe that when the Assad government falls, Iran will support partition of the country and will result in the establishment of a Shia state along the Syrian coast where most of the population is Alawite (a Shia sect that about ten percent of Syrians belong to). The Assads are Alawite and the Alawites have basically run the country for over four decades. The current rebellion in Syria is mainly the Sunni majority (over 70 percent of Syrians) against the Alawites.
The rebels report that they are encountering more and more Hezbollah fighters in Damascus and along the Lebanese border. Apparently Hezbollah gunmen are being used to keep a road open from Damascus to Lebanon so that reinforcements and cargo can go out and people fleeing the fighting can get out. Rebels believe that Hezbollah fighters now comprise over five percent of the forces Assad can depend on. This means that the rebels plan to make a major effort to take Damascus will involve major fighting with Hezbollah forces.
April 11, 2013: Fighting in Daraa, a town of 75,000 near the Jordanian border, has been going on for two years and just gets uglier and uglier. The government has made a major effort to hold the city and control the nearby border. It’s been a losing battle and lately the troops have been taking it out on civilians they consider pro-rebel. That includes many more villages around the city and neighborhoods inside the city. Government troops even managed to recapture one of these villages (Sanamein) but will probably not try to hold onto it.
April 8, 2013: On the Syrian border Israeli troops have noted that more and more Syrian troops are being withdrawn from the frontier, apparently to help defend Damascus. This means that the Syrian rebels are controlling more of the border. Most of the Syrian rebels here are Islamic radicals, who are dedicated to the destruction of Israel. If any of these Islamic radicals try to get into Israel and carry out attacks they will probably fail, but this will cause many Israelis to call for intervention in the Syrian civil war, something the Israeli government has been trying to avoid.
Al Qaeda in Iraq announced that it had merged with several of the largest Islamic terror groups fighting in Syria. The Iraqi terrorists also admitted that they had played a role in forming those Syrian Sunni Arab terror groups. The grand plan here is for Syrian Sunni Arabs (the majority in Syria) to take control of Syria (something most Syrian Sunnis oppose) and then aid their brethren in Iraq to restore Sunni Arab power to Iraq. That effort could get very messy.
A suicide car bomb went off in downtown Damascus, killing 19 (including four soldiers). The last such attack was in February, and increased security in the city has prevented a repeat until now.
April 7, 2013: The government admitted that last year exports fell by 97 percent and imports by 76 percent. In reality, it was not as bad as that, especially for imports, because there was a lot more smuggling and other unregistered movements of goods in and out of the country. But this does make it clear why so many people are fleeing the country. Especially in areas with heavy combat, there is little food coming in for civilians. Syria produces enough food to feed itself but moving food from agricultural areas to where it is needed most is difficult because of government and rebel efforts to block each other’s traffic on the roads.