As hopes for a Syrian peace conference fade and the opposition falls into disarray, President Bashar Assad has every reason to project confidence.
Government forces have moved steadily against rebels in key areas over the past two months, making strategic advances and considerably lowering the threat to the capital, Damascus.
With army soldiers no longer defecting and elite Hezbollah fighters actively helping, the regime now clearly has the upper hand in a two-year civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people.
In TV interviews this week, Assad and his foreign minister boasted of achievements and suggested that the military offensive would continue regardless of whether a peace track is in place.
“What is happening now is not a shift in tactic from defense to attack, but rather a shift in the balance of power in favor of the armed forces,” Assad said.
“There is no doubt that as events have unfolded, Syrians have been able to better understand the situation and what is really at stake,” Assad told Al-Manar TV, owned by the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group.
Military analysts and activists in Syria say that Assad’s forces have shown renewed determination since roughly the beginning of April, moving to recapture areas that had long fallen to rebels.
Significantly, Syrian troops appear to have gained the edge in the central Homs region.
Homs is important partly because it links Damascus with the coastal heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The rebels are mostly from the country’s Sunni Muslim majority. The coast also is home to the country’s two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus.
Syrian troops and Hezbollah forces have been clearing the town of Qusair in Homs province, where rebels have been entrenched for a year.
State-run Syrian TV said yesterday that troops captured the village of Jawadiyeh outside Qusair, closing all entrances leading to the town and tightening the government’s siege.
For the rebels, holding the town means protecting their supply line to Lebanon, just 6 miles away. Days ago, the rebels called on opposition forces around the country to join them in defending Qusair.
In an interview with Al-Mayadeen TV on Wednesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said he expected the fall of Qusair to the regime “within days.”
The commander of the main Western-backed umbrella group of Syrian rebel brigades, Gen. Salim Idris, said this week that unless rebels receive weapons quickly, they might not be able to hold Qusair.
The army has also pushed back rebels in some areas around the capital. According to residents, that’s led to a decline in mortar shells.
“The army has broken the atmosphere of fear and terror inside Damascus that the rebels created by firing mortars,” said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who heads the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut.
Jaber said troops have cleared up to 80 percent of the areas around Damascus in the past two months.
Equally important, he said, is the successful offensive the army is conducting in the area south of Damascus that links the capital with the Jordanian border.
Despite a surge in rebel advances near Jordan earlier this year, the government now appears to control much of Daraa province south of Damascus, an opposition stronghold and the birthplace of the uprising.
Politically, Assad can still count on the support of his Russian and Iranian allies — and the growing disarray of the Western-backed Syrian opposition.
Yesterday, Russia’s MiG aircraft maker announced plans to sign a new agreement to ship at least 10 fighter jets to Syria.
Hours after the announcement, the U.S. and Germany lashed out at Moscow’s intentions to provide the Assad regime with an advanced air-defense system, which could prolong the war.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia’s transfer of the S-300 missiles would not be “helpful” as the U.S. and Russia jointly try to get the Syrian government and opposition into peace negotiations. The talks were initially planned for Geneva this month but have been delayed until July.
Syria’s main political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, faced stiff criticism for spending meetings in Turkey this week mired in personal issues and quarrels about membership.
On Thursday, the coalition announced that in light of “massacres” in Qusair, it would not attend peace talks. That torpedoes the only plan for trying to end Syria’s civil war that the international community had been able to agree on.
With prospects for a diplomatic solution dim, President Barack Obama will likely face renewed pressure to help the rebels militarily.
Yesterday, Republican Sen. John McCain said rebels need ammunition and heavy weapons to reverse the battlefield situation. McCain returned Thursday from a trip to Syria.