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After setbacks, where do Syria rebels stand?

ALEPPO: United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi (right) visits the old city of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo yesterday. — AFP

BEIRUT: Forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad have dealt another blow to the faltering Syrian rebel movement, regaining control of a strategic area near Damascus at the weekend. The capture of the Wadi Barada area is another setback for rebels after the loss of the second city of Aleppo in December, the biggest blow to the opposition since the conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011.

What happened in Wadi Barada?
Syrian government forces took back Wadi Barada outside Damascus on Sunday after a deal that saw hundreds of rebels leave for opposition-held Idlib province in northern Syria. Wadi Barada is the main source of water for the capital, and the government accused rebels of deliberately cutting off supplies since December 22, leaving 5.5 million people without water. Rebels said government strikes had damaged pumping infrastructure.  But they eventually agreed a deal that saw 700 rebels and 1,400 civilians leave Wadi Barada for Idlib, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The government has struck similar so-called reconciliation deals in at least six other areas around the capital in recent months.”The rebel movement has definitively lost Damascus,” said Fabrice Balanche, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He said that Syria’s army and allied militia-like Lebanese movement Hezbollah-have methodically chipped away at rebel-held towns around the capital since 2013. “The most rational rebels are seeking a way to negotiate an amnesty with the Syrian government. For others, their only hope is to be moved to Idlib,” Balanche said.

Where does this leave rebels?
Nearly six years since Syria’s uprising broke out, many of the opposition movement’s most important gains have been rolled back. They have lost much of the territory they had captured around Damascus, and suffered their biggest defeat yet in December when government forces took full control of Aleppo. Rebels now hold just 13 percent of Syrian territory, according to Balanche, including the province of Idlib where former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh Al-Sham Front holds sway. Elsewhere, the armed opposition holds part of the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus and some territory in central and southern Syria.  “In 2013, rebels’ repeated attacks threatened central Damascus and the lines of communication towards the outside,” Balanche said. “But today, they are on the defensive, divided, encircled and without hope of victory,” he said. Assad’s regime had essentially won a war of attrition, Balanche said, “counting on being able to wear down communities bombarded, besieged, and at the mercy of rebel groups”. “It took more than four years, but the regime can consider itself victorious, even if it faces pockets of resistance.”

What is happening in Idlib?
Northwest Idlib province, which borders Turkey, is the main remaining bastion for Syria’s weakened opposition fighters. But the province has been rocked by opposition infighting for more than a week, as Fateh al-Sham Front battles former rebel allies. Aymenn Al-Tamimi, an expert in jihadist movements, has said the fighting could escalate to an existential war that Fateh al-Sham would not be willing to lose. Some rebels have sided with Fateh Al-Sham, while others have supported the powerful Ahrar Al-Sham, once a key ally of the former Al-Qaeda affiliate.  With rebels divided, Syria’s army and key backer Moscow could deem the moment right to launch an attack on the province, Balanche warned. “This is a war within the uprising,” pitting hardliners against those seeking a political solution to the conflict, he said. “It corresponds with Russia’s strategy to divide and conquer, ahead of backing a military offensive against Idlib province,” Balanche said. – AFP

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