Martin Chulovand Kareem Shaheen in Beirut
In June 2011, a Syrian regime crackdown on Jisr al-Shughour was hailed by its supporters as a sign of its strength.
Four years later, the capitulation of loyalist forces to advancing rebels in the same city is being seen as evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s hold on Syria may now be weaker than at any point during the civil war.
The rapid surrender of Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday, following 48 hours of rebel attacks, came after regime forces lost the nearby provincial capital, Idlib, earlier in April. Earlier this year, loyalist offensives in Aleppo, northern Damascus and southern Syria were similarly defeated within days.
At the same time, rebel groups, long thought to have been on the wane under the twin threats of the regime and Islamic State , have made significant advances seizing swaths of ground that consolidate control of north-western Syria and put them within striking distance of the Mediterranean coast.
“Despite constant western media assessments that Assad’s situation is secure, the reality is that the Syrian war is one of attrition,” said Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Damascus, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “And minority regimes usually do not fare well in prolonged wars of attrition.”
The revival of the opposition comes after it too appeared to be in disarray over the winter, with infighting and repeated realignments denying it momentum and emboldening a regime that believed it had done enough to secure its interests.
The changing tide, however, has revitalised its disparate factions and provided a platform to push east towards the regime-held half of Aleppo, or Syria’s third city, Hama, to the south.
The opposition’s changing fortunes have followed a rapprochement between Turkey, which has been the main backer of the Islamist anti-Assad rebels, and Saudi Arabia, which had supported more mainstream rebel groups.
“That’s all changed now,” said a senior member of the Syrian opposition who has supplied weapons to various groups. “They’ve put their differences aside. Saudi is not as concerned as it was by who among the rebel groups is winning, as long as it’s not [Isis]. They’ve convinced everyone involved in Syria that the real enemy is Iran.Riyadh had been deeply suspicious of Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which it saw as a subversive threat at home and a chief beneficiary of the Arab revolts, more broadly.
“I would put the advances down to one word,” he said. “Tow”. Saudi-supplied Tow guided missiles have taken a heavy toll on Syrian armoury and have been widely used over the past two months, in northern and southern Syria.
In 2014, the US also supplied a small number of the missiles to groups in the north it had vetted, however attempts by Washington to manoeuvre their allies into a dominant role within the opposition failed when they were ousted by hardline Islamist rebels, led by Jabhat al-Nusra in late-February.
“Since then, the Saudis have stepped up,” the weapons smuggler said. “They have been big on unity and discipline. We have seen much less of the infighting than we used to see and the results speak for themselves.”
Al-Nusra, as well as Ahrar al-Sham, which is strongly backed by Turkey, share much of al-Qaida’s worldview and have both assumed prominent roles in the northern opposition. Both have worked alongside more moderate groups, but were quick to claim control of both Jisr al-Shughour and Idlib as they rolled into the city on Saturday.
On the ground in Jisr al-Shughour, one resident who returned as the rebels advanced said: “There were people from the normal opposition there. They were strong too, but the jihadists were stronger.”
The 2011 regime crackdown in Jisr al-Shughour, in which anti-regime demonstrators were fired on by Syrian troops, was the moment when Turkey, a longtime interlocutor of the Assad regime, decisively sided with the opposition.
About 10,000 refugees flooded into Turkey, one of the first mass exoduses of the Syrian conflict and Turkey’s then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, railed against Assad, whom he had regarded as a protege. Close to 50,000 residents soon fled to the countryside, setting the scene for the largest displacement of refugees anywhere in the world since the end of the second world war.
Thousands more fled on Sunday as regime jets started bombing the city. Two military bases to the north-east - the last Syrian outposts in the north of the country - were also bombed by air forces fighters as opposition forces surrounded them.
The sudden change in the military landscape and the collapse of Syrian forces in areas that matter most to the regime has left minority communities in the area dubbed the Alawite heartland more vulnerable than ever before, and the regime seemingly less able to support them.
However, a political solution still seems a distant option, with all previous attempts having failed and neither side appearing interested in broad ceasefire initiatives.
“Assad will not be able to keep holding onto power,” said the leader of Lebanon’s Druze sect and Assad critic, Walid Jumblatt.
“But his detachment from reality will lead him to destroy what is left of Syria. I think it is already too late for the so-called political solution.”