Last week Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that his regime has “no choice but victory.”
A fierce counteroffensive by his troops — including what appears to be the local deployment of chemical weapons — reflects that mindset.
“The disaster has struck, the army entered Otaiba. The regime has managed to turn off the weapons tap,” a fighter from the town told Reuters via Skype.
On April 12, Western diplomats told Agence-France Press they had “hard evidence” that chemical weapons have been used by the Syrian army. On April 25, U.S. defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the White House has evidence of chemical weapons use.
That plan has been bolstered by support from Syrian allies, in the form of weapons and guerrilla tactics training from Iran, continued military and financial support from Russia, and an influx of Hezbollah fighters.
“Now the operations are well-planned and the objectives are precise,” Rami Abdel, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP. “This is because Iranian officers are on the ground, leading operations, while new Iranian weapons conceived for this kind of battle are flowing in.”
The recent counteroffensive has both stemmed rebel momentum in the south and led to state gains in the north and major cities in the country’s west, which link the capital to Assad’s coastal stronghold.
Otaiba is pivotal as it serves a gateway from Syria’s south into the eastern rural suburbs of Damascus known as al-Ghouta.
“Now all the villages will start falling one after another, the battle in Eastern Ghouta will be a war of attrition,” a rebel fighter in the area told Reuters via Skype.
Assad’s previous strategy shift, to rely on air superiority and wait for the opposition to fracture, continues as towns are bombed and distress calls from rebels in Otaiba go unanswered by rival rebel units.
“To all mujahedeen (holy warriors): If Otaiba falls, the whole of Eastern Ghouta will fall … come and help,” part of the message sent to fighters said.
While Assad’s decisions to bomb civilians and use chemical weapons raises the possibility of international intervention, the West has been hesitant to do so for obvious military reasons as well as the specter of al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels filling the vacuum if Assad falls.
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