It's been a full week since the rebels from the Free Syrian Army launched an offensive against the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and it's still entirely open where this new phase in the Syrian uprising is heading.
The biggest development over the weekend is the fall of several crossings on Syria's borders with Turkey and Iraq to rebels' hands. Reuters reported on Sunday that FSA controlled three out of seven border crossings with Turkey. There are also disturbing reports that the Bab al-Hawa crossing is being held by 150 foreign Islamist fighters, some of whom claim to have links with Al Qaeda in North Africa.
The rebels' control over borders crossings with Turkey is hugely significant both symbolically and logistically:
- The FSA can gain control over trade routes that feed the business community in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub. Once Syria's big business withdraws support for Assad, the political game is over for the ruling family.
- Rebels can establish better supply lines of weapons and fighters. Remember, Turkey's southern Hatay province houses the FSA's command and thousands of Syrian refugees (similar to what northern Pakistan is for the Afghan Taliban).
How did it come to this? I have no doubt that Syrian army will launch a heavy offensive to regain the control of the border, but just the fact that the rebels were able to make this advance tells us that government forces are being spread thin by the fighting in various parts of the country, and were forced to leave the borders virtually undefended.
As expected, government troops have pushed back at the rebels in Damascus, meaning we're far from seeing Assad flee the capital. But a new front has opened in Aleppo, where FSA attacked the army in various neighbourhoods of the city, says the BBC. Again, they don't seem to be overtaking the city, but it's the first since the uprising started that we're seeing rebels making coordinated offensive campaigns on a such a large scale, while actually managing to hold territory.
In the coming days we'll see how cohesive Assad's war machine remains. If the rebels succeed in sustaining the fight in both Damascus and Aleppo, they will win some badly needed breathing space for FSA units in Homs, Hama and Idlib.
Photo by Salah Malkawi/Getty Images.