Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, supporters of President Bashar al-Assad could always take comfort in one fact: The regime had not lost control of a city. Of course, it had been challenged in Homs, Aleppo, and even Damascus - but if Assad could still control neighborhoods and pay salaries in major urban centers, he could plausibly make the case that he was still in the driver's seat.
That argument doesn't hold water any more. The northern city of Raqqa unexpectedly fell to the rebels yesterday, as anti-regime Syrians toppled the statue of Hafez al-Assad in a city square and captured the provincial governor. Raqqa had long been considered one of Assad's strongholds in the north: In November 2011, he performed Eid prayers in the city's al-Nour mosque to demonstrate his continuing hold over the region.
The toppling of Assad's statue quickly became the iconic image of the city's uprising. The image above juxtaposes the statue coming down, over the words "Made in Syria," with the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, over the words "Made in America." The joy at this example of self-empowerment, however, was short-lived. Shortly after the statue of Assad was toppled, video showed the same square targeted by shelling, causing several casualties.
The fall of Raqqa is just the latest example in what has been a consistent deterioration of Assad's control over northern Syria. By early February, rebels were looking to wrest control of Idlib Province from the regime. On Feb. 12, they captured the country's largest dam, to the west of Raqqa. On Feb. 15, they overran a military airbase to the east of Aleppo's airport. On Feb. 23, they first broke into a police academy on the outskirts of Aleppo. And on Feb. 28, they seized a checkpoint along the Iraqi border, and were only beaten back after the Iraqi army intervened.
The rebels' growing momentum in the north raises more questions than answers about where this conflict is heading. Can Assad hold on in his remaining northern strongholds, most importantly Aleppo? With the rebel advance slower in the rest of Syria, is the country heading for de facto partition? The Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra took the lead in capturing Raqqa -- how will they govern the city? If anyone tells you they have the answers, they're lying.
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