ANTAKYA, Turkey – In three years of fighting, rebel commanders had never seen anything like the video that went up on the Internet last week. There was Brig. Gen. Suhail al Hassan, one of President Bashar Assad’s favorite commanders, pleading with the Syrian defense minister for urgent help.
“Sir,” he began, speaking into his cellphone. “The fighters in al-Ziara have retreated. There are 800 fighters. They are all around me, and they want to go back. They only need ammunition. Please provide the ammunition,” he said. “Am I not right, men?”
The dozens of regime troops crowding around him shouted their agreement.
The sight of Hassan begging for help is viewed with satisfaction by opponents of the Assad regime. “I know him. He was rattled. He’d lost his composure” said Col. Jemiel Radoon, a U.S.-backed moderate rebel commander.
With good reason. Government forces appear on the verge of being ousted from their last redoubt in northern Syria, and the forces under Radoon’s command had just blocked their escape route.
Three days after the video went up, the government was back on the attack, mounting, by rebel count, 150 air attacks to clear the way for the retreat into the Ghab valley toward Latakia, the province where Assad’s Alawite followers predominate.
The back and forth in the Ghab Valley last week, with Radoon’s Sukur al Ghab forces pushing government forces out of the northern valley then giving up three villages when confronted by the fierce aerial bombardment, is part of a much broader drama in which disparate rebel forces, including Al-Qaida’s Nusra Front, have stopped fighting each other and are coordinating operations against Assad.
The configuration seems to change with each battle. The Nusra Front led the fighting at Idlib, the capital of the province of the same name, which fell March 28. Moderate rebels, some supplied by the U.S., were a major part of the anti-government force that captured Jisr al Shughour April 25. Days later, the Nusra Front was in charge of ISIL fighters who overwhelmed the Qarmeed military base.