Assad moves on Idlib, but Ghouta leaves regime vulnerable
Syrian regime forces and allied militias are advancing on the largest rebel-held territory in Idlib, but opposition resistance in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta has become a liability for Assad's forces.
An offensive on Idlib was expected after the defeat of the Islamic State group last year but any such operations carry significant risks.
The northern province borders Turkey and is home to an estimated two million Syrians, including tens of thousands of civilians who fled fighting elsewhere.
It is unclear how far the current offensive aims to reach and recapturing the entire province will likely be a long and bloody process.
Turkey, a supporter of the rebels, has deployed military observers in Idlib as part of a de-escalation deal with Iran and Russia but that has not stopped fighting on the ground or Russian airstrikes.
In the past two months a Russian air offensive has helped capture 80 towns and villages in the nearby Hama province and breached Idlib for the first time since mid-2015.
Opposition activists say the main target for the opposition now appears to be the sprawling rebel-held air base of Abu Zuhour, on the south-eastern edge of the province, and securing the Damascus-Aleppo road that cuts through Idlib province.
The offensive gained more intensity on Christmas Day, when one of Bashar Assad's most trusted and experienced officers took command of the operation to extend the regime's presence toward Idlib and boost security for the road that links the capital, Damascus, with Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
Four days after Brig. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan took over operational command, troops managed to break through the militants' heavy defenses and capture the town of Abu Dali, a link between Hama, Idlib and Aleppo.
An opposition activist based in Hama province, Mohammed al-Ali, said the Russians and the Syrian regime are "carpet bombing" villages before pushing into them.
"The Russian airstrikes, weak fortifications and Islamic State attacks in Hama" have all helped government forces, he said by telephone.
Syrian rebels have also had to fight off an IS offensive in Hama, as the regime launched attacks.
Last week, regime forces advanced to within around 12 kilometres of Khan Sheikhoun, where a sarin nerve gas attack killed more than 90 people last year, prompting the US to launch a missile attack on Assad's troops
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the fighting through a network of activists, says that some 43 civilians, 57 militants and 46 pro-government forces have been killed since the offensive led by al-Hassan began on 25 December.
"The regime wants to take the eastern part of Idlib province," said the Observatory's chief, Rami Abdurrahman.
"Their aim is to remove any threat to the road" between Damascus and Aleppo, he said.
Eastern Ghouta a 'weak spot'
While the Assad regime backed by Russia has retaken more than half of the country with a string of victories against rebels, the battle-scarred Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta remains a thorn in the regime's side.
The region east of Damascus has been under near-daily bombardment and a crippling regime siege since 2013, but rebels controlling the area have been able to use it as a launch pad for rocket and mortar attacks on the capital.
Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the ongoing rebellion in Eastern Ghouta contrasted with the regime "presenting itself as the winner" of Syria's war elsewhere.
"The persistence of the East Ghouta resistance has become a major embarrassment and liability for the Assad regime," he said.
"It hopes to convince the international community that it faces little opposition any more save for the enclaves on the margins of Syria," Landis said.
This week rebels managed to surround a regime base on the edge of Eastern Ghouta, prompting intense airstrikes there.
"The factions there are strong and directly threaten Damascus," he told AFP.
The beleaguered 100-square-kilometre enclave's estimated 400,000 inhabitants are suffering severe shortages of food and medicine.
Children there are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition.
Despite the civilian suffering caused by the blockade, rebel groups in Ghouta "still have a popular base, because thousands of their fighters are from the region", Abdel Rahman said.
Jaish al-Islam, a powerful Islamist rebel group that has recognised the de-escalation deal and takes part in UN-backed peace talks, is among the most powerful groups in Eastern Ghouta.
It controls Douma, the largest city in the region, but shares power with Faylaq al-Rahman, another Islamist rebel group that controls the localities of Erbin and Hammuriyeh.
Syria analyst Sam Heller of the Century Foundation think tank Heller says things were moving "towards a militarily settlement in the regime's favour" in areas held by Faylaq al-Rahman, Ahrar al-Sham and the Fateh-al Sham-dominated alliance.
But the situation is different in areas controlled by Jaish al-Islam, he said.
The group "is an armed force that is not to be underestimated, and it controls large residential areas that the regime would struggle to absorb", he said.
He said talks between the group and Russia could lead to "a negotiated solution that would leave it in place once it has made some concessions".
Landis said the de-escalation deal over the area would be "nibbled away at" in the coming weeks.
"Assad has preferred until now to starve and bomb the Ghouta enclave rather than launch an expensive frontal attack," he said.
Rights groups and the UN have criticised "reconciliation" agreements that see civilians evacuated following sieges and bombardment apparently aimed at forcing civilians to leave their homes.
Such deals have seen rebels transferred to Idlib in the north, the only province in Syria fully outside regime control.
"We should also expect that increased pressure will be applied to the Ghouta militias to surrender or agree to reconciliation or deportation to Idlib," Landis said.