The Remnants of the Assad Regime
Three of the five border crossings located on the northern border between Syria and Turkey have fallen under the control of the Free Syrian Army. These are the Bab al-Hawa, Bab al-Salamah, and Jarablous border crossings, respectively. The fall of these portals illustrates the inability of the Assad regime to control its borders and shows the ever-growing threat that the FSA poses to the regime. As a result of these seizures, the opposition is capable of resupplying with relative ease via direct supply lines passing from Turkey through the rebel-controlled border posts to the liberated areas and front lines without the threat of direct contact with regime forces.
I personally had the opportunity to cross the Turkish-Syrian border as I headed to the city of Azaz via the rebel-held Bab al-Salamah border crossing. Al-Salamah was originally liberated by the North Storm Brigade, one of a number of rebel groups formed directly prior to the battle of Aleppo.
Signs of the conflict in Azaz are ubiquitous. Either at the city entrance or through its public buildings, it's clear that that Azaz was heavily bombarded by the Assad regime. Even private and public hospitals were targeted for allegedly helping to rescue and relieve the injured. Homes of the civilians received the worst of the shelling. It is now clear that artillery strikes on the city were part of a systematic campaign to collectively punish Azaz's population for tolerating the presence of the Free Syrian Army.
However, rather than undercutting the base of support for the FSA, the army's indiscriminate shelling actually galvanized support for the rebels. Many citizens of Azaz were inspired to join local militias in order to defend their city and exact revenge for the crimes perpetrated against innocents. Case in point: around 121 individuals were killed in the city of Azaz during the clashes leading up to its liberation -- only 12 of were actually professional soldiers from the Free Syrian Army.
The main challenge today is that Syria is stuck in the middle of a pre-transitional period. Huge swaths of Syria are liberated while the regime still controls other areas, such as the capital, Damascus. As a result, the Syrian opposition's main challenge is to manage liberated areas while working toward freeing the rest of the country. Such a process is extremely difficult because complete liberation would require a large amount of administrative, military, and political effort and organization, as well as administrative bodies to manage the transitional period following liberation, a role that would normally be played by the remnants of a central government.
However, the state has collapsed completely in the northern areas. Whether in the suburbs of Aleppo, Idlib, and Deir Elzzour, or even in the city of Aleppo itself, the Syrian army doesn't even consider attempting to retake FSA-held territory because it completely lacks the human and military resources to do so. Instead, the Assad regime targets captured areas with air strikes, leaving hundreds of civilians injured or dead daily. Constant aerial bombardment is the main impediment to the complete liberation of Syria. A no-fly zone is needed to protect populaces and civilian infrastructure from complete destruction.
It is the responsibility of the international community to help and protect the Syrian people in their fight to liberate Syria as well as to assist in the management of the transition process, either through imposing a no-fly zone or by providing technical and financial assistance to the civil society organizations that are currently administrating the liberated areas of Free Syria.
Dr. Radwan Ziadeh is executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a senior fellow at the U.S Institute of Peace, and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) in Washington D.C.