Commentary — September 14, 2012, 10:27 pm

Syria’s Summer of Stalemate

In the August issue of Harper’s Magazine, I detailed the travails of the rebel-held Syrian town of Taftanaz, which had suffered a two-day massacre at the hands of the Syrian army. Hundreds of homes were demolished and whole families slaughtered—yet somehow the revolutionary movement survived intact. In the months since my April visit, the story remains much the same: perseverance in the face of a bloody stalemate. Taftanaz lies only a mile or so from an important government airbase, which exposes the town to almost daily shelling. Indeed, in the early summer months, shells tore through civilian homes with brutal regularity, adding more destruction to an already devastated city. Then, in July, troops from the base stormed the town center, demolishing a mosque in the process. By August, the shelling and helicopter strafing runs had grown so intense that most of the townspeople fled, leaving behind only rebel fighters and some hardcore activists.

In this milieu, Islamist groups, entirely absent before, began to make an appearance. In late August, they ambushed the airbase, destroying as many as ten helicopters sitting on the tarmac, and last week they managed to shoot down a chopper as it flew over town. But the Islamists’ presence has sparked resentment from other rebel groups, who complain that they act unilaterally and without regard for the Syrian army’s retaliation. Perhaps partly because of this mutual mistrust, neither the Islamists nor the mainstream rebel groups have been able to capture the base. Still, the summer months saw their share of durable victories: rebel control now extends to almost all of the territory around Taftanaz, making the airbase nearly non-operational at times.

In many ways, Taftanaz’s evolution mirrors the overall course of the revolution this summer. Syrian forces are so overstretched that they simply cannot occupy the hundreds of small towns across the countryside, and so instead continue to resort to periodic raids and shelling. Islamist groups enjoy greater influence across the country, in large part because their organizational prowess far surpasses that of their secular counterparts. There are now at least a half-dozen such groups, which—while still a tiny minority—are exerting a greater role in the fighting. As in the environs of Taftanaz, the rebels have succeeded in extending their writ over larger parts of northern Syria. For instance, whereas I had to sneak into the country under a barbed-wire fence in the dead of night, today revolutionaries openly control the main northern border crossing with Turkey. But these developments are changes of degree, not kind—the stalemate I described in Taftanaz appears to be deepening elsewhere. Bashar al-Assad’s leadership circle remains largely intact, and his jets continue to pound cities like Aleppo. Yet every Friday, thousands in small towns across the country continue to stand together, carrying banners and chanting slogans, as determined and defiant as ever.

Share
Single Page
writes frequently about the Middle East and South Asia. His book about the war in Afghanistan is forthcoming from Henry Holt.

More from Anand Gopal:

From the September 2014 issue

Kandahar’s Mystery Executions

Are the Afghan police using torture to achieve peace?

Postcard April 7, 2014, 5:37 pm

The Ghost Polls of Afghanistan

Election Day in Afghanistan’s hinterlands

Commentary August 8, 2012, 10:21 am

Decoding the Syrian Propaganda War

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2015

Loitering With Intent

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Polite Coup

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Findings

What Went Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Shooting Down Man the Hunter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What Went Wrong·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession.”
Photograph by Pete Souza
Article
Surviving a Failed Pregnancy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If this woman — who spent her days studying gray screens for early signs of gestation — could not see my pregnancy, what were the chances that anyone else would?”
Illustration by Leigh Wells
Article
Interesting Facts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My husband is forty-six. I am forty-five. He does not think that, in my forties, after cancer, chemotherapy, and chemically induced menopause, I can get pregnant again, but sisters, I know my womb. It’s proven.”
Photograph by McNair Evans
Post
Kid Chocolate’s Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears.”
Illustration by the author
Article
Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If you short-circuit the bottom, you threaten the entire cycle,” Joye told me. “Without a healthy ocean, we’ll all be dead.”
Illustration by John Ritter

Amount that Egypt owes the United States in unpaid parking tickets:

$1,700,000

Studies of humankind’s original states—in China, Egypt, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and Peru—suggest that the emergence of bureaucracy catalyzed predatory imperial expansion.

An Egyptian court sentenced former president Mohamed Morsi and 106 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death for killing and kidnapping police; conspiring with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah; participating in a 20,000-man jailbreak; and stealing chickens.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today