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Syrian Rebels Get Better at Fighting But Not at Governing

The past few days in Syria have been particularly bloody and destructive, Reuters reports:

An Islamist suicide car bomber killed at least 50 Syrian security men in Hama province on Monday, an opposition group said, in what would be one of the bloodiest single attacks on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in a 20-month-old uprising.

Syrian government sources denied that account, saying two civilians were killed. Opposition sources say several rebel brigades collaborated on the attack.

Another car bomb exploded in a Damascus neighborhood known as home to many of Assad’s top security men. Opposition sources say a “large number” of people were killed. Residents told the Times they were trying to flee the area but were hemmed in by heavy fighting all around them.

Dozens of people were killed in southern Damascus, including a number of Palestinians fighting on the edge of Yarmouk camp. Government planes, helicopters, and artillery battered the area for hours, residents and opposition sources reported.

This violence follows several important advances made by rebel brigades over the weekend. On Saturday they launched a coordinated assault on the Taftanaz air base, which lies near the highway that connects Damascus to Aleppo. The base houses military helicopters and if captured would mark a major achievement by the rebels. There are currently no confirmed reports on whether the rebels are now in total control of the base or were fought off. Government airstrikes in the northern province of Idlib killed dozens of rebel fighters today, so even if the Taftanaz air base fell, the regime has proven itself able to continue fighting in the north.

Rebel forces also captured a major oilfield in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor on Sunday. This is the first time an oilfield has fallen out of the regime’s control.

All this suggests that the rebels are becoming a more effective fighting force. Despite their ideological differences, brigades are working together to attack prominent government installations. Jabhet al-Nusra, a jihadist organization, and other rebel groups collaborated on both the Hama car bomb and the Taftanaz attack.

The rebel brigades might be getting better at fighting together but they are no closer to organizing a united political front. The Syrian opposition leadership, together with international officials including Hillary Clinton, are meeting in Qatar to organize some kind of united front that connects with fighters on the ground. The opposition leaders are under intense pressure to get organized, but so far they have been unable to match their military advances in the political arena.

Slow, grinding military progress combined with political stalemate and jihadist gains: this is not looking good.

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