Rebel forces in Syria have made significant gains over the past few days, capturing additional towns and military bases from the army still loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Jihadist militias thought be aligned with Al-Qaeda have taken control of Scud missile bases in the north-eastern province of Dier ez-Zor.
These missiles have been used by the Syrian army to fire on rebel-held areas and have killed hundreds of civilians in a civil war that has so far claimed the lives at least 70,000 Syrians.
Another military installation captured by the rebels was reported to be the site where, in 2007, an Israeli air strike destroyed a secret nuclear reactor being built by Syria with Iranian and North Korean assistance.
The rebels’ gains were part of a larger campaign in areas close to the Syria-Iraq border that have seen the Syrian army pull back from a number of towns in the region. The Syrian army’s withdrawal is seen as part of a move to solidify the regime’s defence of its strongholds in the centre of the country and by the Mediterranean coast.
The regime’s efforts seem now to be focused on controlling Damascus and the main highways between the Syrian capital and the central cities of Aleppo and Homs, as well as the Beirut-Damascus highway, which is crucial for the Syrian-Iranian-Hizbollah alliance.
Despite losing control of vast swathes of territory, it is believed that the Assad regime can hold on if it secures Damascus and the city’s links to Lebanon and the Mediterranean ports.
As events in Syria have been unfolding, a bizarre exchange has been taking place between London and Damascus, with Foreign Secretary William Hague declaring that Britain is upgrading its aid to the rebels. For now, this includes “non-lethal” elements such as body armour and vehicles but the possibility of sending arms to the rebels has not been ruled out.
In an interview with the BBC on Sunday, Mr Hague said that the main constraint on arms shipments are “the risks of arms falling into the wrong hands” but that this was part of “a balance of risk” in a situation where “humanitarian need is so great and the loss of life is so great that you have to do something new to save lives.”
Mr Hague was responding to a rare interview given last week by President Assad to the Sunday Times in which he said that “the British government wants to send military aid to moderate groups in Syria, knowing all too well that such moderate groups do not exist in Syria.
“We all know that we are now fighting al-Qaeda or Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an offshoot of al-Qaeda, and other groups of people indoctrinated with extreme ideologies.”