Since mass defections of mostly conscript soldiers shrank the government's fighting force earlier in the uprising, it has largely given up on trying to reclaim parts of the country far from the capital, said Joseph Holliday, a fellow with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
Instead, the government has focused on solidifying its grip on a strip of land that extends from the capital Damascus in the south, up to Homs in the country's center, and west to the coastal area heavily populated by President Bashar Assad's sect, the Alawites.
Other than hitting them with airstrikes or artillery, Assad had made little effort to reclaim rebel-held areas in the country's far north and east.
The character of those fighting for Assad has changed, too. As the uncommitted defected, the loyalists remained. "All of these defections and desertions basically created a more loyal and therefore more deployable core," said Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who is based in Dubai. "At least you know who is fighting for you."
Assad has also come to rely more heavily on paramilitary militias that draw largely from his Alawite sect and other minorities who consider him a bulwark against the rebels' Islamism. More recently, fighters from Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah have added extra muscle, especially in the border region near the town of Qusair, an area dotted with Shiite and Sunni villages that has seen intense fighting in recent months.
This new focus on tightening his grip on the country's center suits Assad fine, said Abdulrahim Mourad, a Lebanese politician and former Parliament member who visited Assad in Damascus last month.
"He told jokes, was very funny," Mourad said. "He was very relaxed and relieved."
In the void left by the government in the country's north and east, rebel groups have seized swaths of territory and struggled to establish local administrations.
Although the Obama administration and its allies share the rebels' goal of removing Assad from power, they have little else in common with the many rebel brigades that define their struggle in Islamic terms and seek to replace Assad with an Islamic state. Among them is Jabhet al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, the local branch of al-Qaida, which the United States has blacklisted as a terrorist group.
The war's duration and the competition for resources have left the rebel movement itself deeply fractured. Few effective links exist between the rebels' exile leader, Gen. Salim Idris, and the most powerful groups on the ground.
Recent months have also seen increasing fights among rebels, diminishing their ability to form a united front against the government. This week, the Islamist Shariah Commission in Aleppo went after rebels accused of looting. The council sent fighters to surround the group's headquarter and arrested some of its members, confiscating trucks full of looted goods. The haul in one neighborhood included five washing machines and a television. Another video, circulated this week, showed a Nusra Front leader in eastern Syria standing behind 11 bound and blindfolded captives. After announcing that they had been sentenced by an Islamic court for killing Syrians, he drew a pistol and shot them in the back of the head, one by one.
Activists later identified the man as a Saudi citizen named Qaswara al-Jizrawi. They also determined that the execution had taken place months earlier, since Jizrawi was killed in March in a gunfight between his and another rebel group that left dozens of people dead on both sides.
These spreading fissures leave little optimism that Syria can be stitched back together under one leadership in the near future.
"The only real outcome I see in the next five to 10 years is a series of cantons that agree to tactical cease-fires because they are tired of the bloodletting," said Holliday, the analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. "That trajectory is in place, with or without Assad."
Most Popular Stories
- American Airlines, US Airways Complete Merger
- ACA Delay Stresses Small Businesses
- Questions Remain in Jenni Rivera's Death
- Unemployed Wait as Lawmakers Debate
- General Dynamics Plans 200 New Jobs in N.M.
- Harley Issues Motorcycle Recall
- Dell Offers Undisclosed Number of Employee Buyouts
- Saab Gets Back into the Game; U.S. Auto Sales Soar
- Auto Dealer Builds Big Solar Project
- Authorities Close to Deal with JPMorgan Chase over Madoff Response