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In Syria, 'winning' is a relative term


Syrian army soldiers taking position in the Jarba area in rural Damascus, Syria, in this photo released May 13 by the official Syrian Arab News Agency.

News analysis

DAMASCUS, Syria – It's early Friday morning, a holy day in Syria's capital. But war is no respecter of dawn or devotion; dense smoke is rising from several suburbs and the birdsong is punctured by the thud of falling artillery shells.

This is Damascus today; a city filled with the noise of war. MiG warplanes swoop overhead en route to rebel targets, mortars land amid dense housing, tanks rumble through suburban streets and, now and again, suicide bombers detonate their vehicles in the hope of killing President Bashar Assad's men. 

But there is a difference in the war here today, from when I last visited four months ago.

Assad's men appear to be winning, in Damascus at least.

I walked through a suburb where the front line has been pushed back 600 yards by government troops. That may not seem much, but when every 50 yards can cost scores of men's lives, even a modest advance can be significant. 

The smoke from the shelling is further away from the city than before. Rebels are less able to launch attacks on the city center. In their stronghold of Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, which they have held for months, there are now around 200 rebels who are surrounded by government forces pounding them relentlessly.

Much of the fighting on Assad's side is now being done by the militia men of the National Defense Force. They are part time soldiers, trained and armed in 40 days. Their motivation is simple and strong: to defend their districts and to drive out rebels they see as Islamist extremists.

It's thought there are around 50,000 militia soldiers. They know their ground and are proving more adept at urban, street fighting than a regular army trained in national warfare and tank battles.    

Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad tells me "momentum is absolutely on our side…We have new tactics, new ways of dealing with armed groups. Now we know the art of fighting them."

It's a pattern repeated in many areas of Syria. In the country's third largest city, Homs, a key suburb, Wadi Sayeh, was retaken by Assad's men. In the South, rebels withdrew hundreds of men from one town because they couldn't be resupplied with ammunition from Jordan. In areas of the North, rebels are running low on arms and ammunition because some donors can't afford to keep paying for munitions two years into the war.

Loud explosions echo across Damascus as the Syrian Army continues operations to push rebels further from the capital. As the fighting rages footage has emerged of President Assad making a rare public appearance and being cheered by supporters. It's not clear exactly when or where it was filmed.  ITV's Bill Neely reports from Damascus.

So is this a tipping point in the war?


Does it mean Assad will win?


It all depends on what you mean by winning. 

‘Winning’ by not losing
The former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that rebels in a guerrilla war only have to avoid losing to win. But in Syria that maxim might equally apply to the government. 

After Tunisia's leader fell in days, Egypt's in weeks, Libya's in months, the world assumed Assad would fall quickly. It's now been years. And he's still there.

He's there partly because of Russian and Iranian help. He receives a steady supply of weapons from both. 

The latest report in the New York Times suggests Russia has now given Syria advanced anti-ship cruise missiles, in order to deter the West from mounting a blockade or no-fly-zone against the country. Russia is also gathering a flotilla of warships near Syria in a show of strength and support for its ally, before next month's planned peace talks in Geneva. Russia's more conventional weapons stocks have been supplying the guns of the government for two years.

Syria's armed forces are also being bolstered by men from the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, men trained and in many cases, practiced in urban warfare. 

Ward Al-Keswani/Reuters

Free Syrian Army fighters carry their weapons while walking down a debris-filled street in the al-Ziyabiya area in Damascus on May 5.

Rebels losing propaganda war
There is an ebb and flow to most wars. At the moment the government has the flow and rebels are on the ebb. 

They are losing ground in the propaganda war, too. Several times this week they have posted brutal videos on the Internet, demonstrating their ruthlessness.

In one, an Islamist fighter, from the Jabhat al-Nusra group that is affiliated with al-Qaeda, appears to publicly execute 11 men kneeling in front of him. Before shooting each of them once in the head, he accuses the men of being soldiers responsible for a massacre. It's one of two brutal execution videos posted by the Al-Nusra group in recent days. Another,video widely circulated in Syria, appears to show a rebel fighter from Homs cutting a hole in a dead soldier’s chest, removing the heart and appearing to take a bite.  

It may be an ancient tactic of war, to dehumanize and terrify your enemy, but the rebels are making many in the outside world queasy and ready to question whether they are worthy of further support. Memories of smiling, flag waving, peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators have dimmed.

And the opposition’s lack of organization is becoming a real problem.

There is, arguably, no such thing as the Free Syrian Army. Aid organizations say they have to deal with around 300 different rebel groups, many loosely grouped under the umbrella of the FSA. Many others are rivals of the FSA, like the al-Nusra group. An “army” is usually something with a command structure and a unified organization. The FSA appears to be nothing of the kind.

As for a political opposition to Assad, the Syrian National Coalition is far from a united coalition. Politicians in the West are frustrated by the apparent inability of the “opposition” to provide a credible alternative to the Assad government.

What international ‘policy’?
All those issues have left supporters of Syria's initial revolution in a quandary.


A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.

The U.S., Britain, France and others are now seriously considering sending weapons to certain, vetted, rebel groups. But which ones? Would the apparent heart-eater's group qualify? How can Europe or America guarantee that the arms they ship will not end up in the hands of Islamists who later turn them against the West? Just remember Benghazi and the murder of a U.S. Ambassador happened in a Libyan city the West began a war to save.

The American administration seems to be indecisive in the face of a seemingly insoluble crisis, haunted by intervention in Iraq, talking about an ever thickening red line on the use of chemical weapons, but concerned about arming the wrong people a year too late. 

Britain and France are pushing for the arming of rebels, while Germany and Austria are pointing to what they see as the folly of doing so. 

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are pouring arms into Syria, money that is making the Islamists of al-Nusra the most effective fighting force on the rebel side. The Gulf States have no interest in the victory of "freedom and democracy" in Syria. As Sunni Muslim states, they want to weaken Shia-dominated nations like Syria and Iran. For many in Saudi Arabia, the advance of a Salafist-Islamist group like the black flagged Nusra Front is an added bonus.

More losers, than winners
Syria's is now more than a sectarian conflict. It's a regional conflict in microcosm, where Iran and Saudi Arabia face off, where Russia and the West arm wrestle, where Israel and Turkey spar for regional dominance and where Syrians die in the tens of thousands.

My old notebook records a death toll of 8,000. That seemed astonishingly high to me, just a year ago. Now it is ten times that and I'm no longer surprised. In fact the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K. based organization that tracks the death toll, now puts it at more than 90,000.

Syria's story today is one of massacres and executions, gruesomely recorded for history on video, of ruthless attacks by both sides, of MiG warplanes bombing men with mortars and machine guns, a chronicle of death foretold, everywhere.

President Assad may be "winning" the war now, whatever winning means. Rebels may "win" in the end by seeing him leave office. But nobody is really winning.

This is, and has been for months, an unwinnable war, deadlocked and deadly. Neither side can break through and neither side will give up. 

Today in Syria, there are only losers.

Related links: 

'Sheer savagery': Syrian rebel rips out soldier's heart, Human Rights Watch says

Syria denies blame for Turkish border bomb blast that killed at least 46

NBC News coverage of Syria