BEIRUT, Lebanon — Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have seized the momentum in the country's civil war in recent weeks, capturing one rebel stronghold after another and triumphantly planting the two-starred Syrian government flag amid shattered buildings and rubble-strewn streets.
Assad's government is exploiting divisions among the opposition, dwindling foreign help for the rebel cause and significant local support — all linked to the same thing: discomfort with the Islamic extremists who have become a major part of the rebellion.
The battlefield gains would strengthen the government's hand in peace talks sought by the world community.
Both the Syrian government and the opposition have said they are ready to attend a proposed peace conference in Geneva that the United States and Russia are trying to convene, although it remains unclear whether the meeting will indeed take place.
The government's recent gains on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, and in the north outside the country's largest city, Aleppo, have reinforced Assad's position that he be part of any transitional government. And the more the government advances, the easier it is to dismiss the weak and fractious opposition's demands for Assad to step aside.
"Assad wants to go to Geneva with credit, not debit," said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who heads the Beirut-based Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research. "He is trying day after day to gain on the battlefield, and when he goes to Geneva he can say, 'Okay, here's the situation — we are strong on the field. What do you have?' "
The government has made its biggest gains in the suburbs south of Damascus, where army troops backed by guerrillas from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group and Shiite militants from Iraq have captured five towns since Oct. 11. The latest to fall was Hejeira, which army troops swept through Wednesday, just days after capturing the adjacent suburb of Sbeineh.
In northern Syria, Assad's forces have captured two towns this month — Safira and Tel Aran, southeast of the battlefield city of Aleppo — and have retaken a military base near Aleppo's international airport.
"Fighting among ourselves has done a lot of damage," Abu Thabet, the commander of the rebel group Aleppo Swords Battalion, said by telephone. "Six months ago, the regime was always on the defensive and we would attack first. Now, after we started infighting, the regime is always on the offensive. They attack, and we defend." Abu Thabet spoke on condition he be identified only by his nom de guerre, to protect his security.