Syrian rebel forces are closing in on the southern Syrian city of Daraa, cradle of the country's revolution and the key to mounting an assault on the capital, Damascus.
On Wednesday, after a five-day siege, they captured an army base on the northern outskirts of Daraa. Just days before that, the strategically important town of Dael, a few kilometres north, also fell.
The city of Daraa is still controlled by the government but it is almost completely isolated. Its back is to the Jordanian frontier and its access to the country's three main highways is increasingly limited. This is the city in which the first pro-democracy protests met the deadly fire of Syrian troops. Now under siege by both Free Syrian Army troops and jihadists from the al-Nusra Front, a large proportion of its population of 100,000 has taken refuge in Jordan, a few kilometres away.
Should it fall, Daraa will provide a base of operations for the opposition to march 90 kilometres north to the capital. Already, several towns and villages along the road to Damascus are in rebel hands.
"Our tactical plan is [control of] Daraa and, strategically, Damascus because the regime will only be defeated and brought down in Damascus," said Colonel Ahmad Fahd al-Naameh, commander of the rebel Military Council of the Southern Front.
Organizers affiliated with the FSA say that rebel forces now control a large area between Daraa and Damascus. Jihadist forces are said to dominate the eastern sector along Highway 110, while the FSA controls many of the communities in the centre, off Highway 5 and the M5.
Some of these organizers felt confident enough about their control of the zone that they were encouraging people to return to their homes. A number of buses will depart from the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan as early as Sunday to take people home, they said.
"We need them to return and rebuild their towns," Mohammed Qadah of the opposition's National Coalition told the New York Times. "We will start with the youth and young men and activists who are needed to run the towns, and then later the kids and families will return."
Such optimism, however, flies in the face of the predominant refugee flow. "Between 500 and 3,000 refugees are crossing into Jordan every day," said a Western diplomat who closely monitors the situation. "Some of them have serious injuries." Many are even following a more treacherous route out of Syria, across the desert.
These are not welcoming signs and it remains to be seen how well the FSA can provide security and basic services in the areas they have liberated.
Rebel or jihadist?
Capturing Daraa may pave the way to Damascus, but it also may open new fronts with neighbouring Jordan and Israel. Whether the conflict threatens these countries will depend mostly on which branch of the opposition forces ultimately is triumphant – the mostly secular rebels of the FSA or the jihadists.
Both Jordan and Israel have voiced their concerns about these extremists, especially those from the large al-Nusra Front that stems from the al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia group that fought U.S. forces in Iraq. The front employs suicide bombers among other tactics and was recently branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
Many of its fighters are Syrian, but many others are from other parts of the Muslim world. Their common goal is to defeat the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replace it with a state ruled by Islamic law, one that is part of a new global caliphate.
In part, this explains why Jordan has been willing to quietly help the rebels of the FSA and why Israel has even admitted some wounded FSA fighters for treatment into its hospitals. Both want to see the secular rebels triumph but fear the spread of the extreme Islamist views.
A great many Syrians worry, too. They don't want to replace one dictatorial regime with another, even if it's an Islamic one.
Jihadists have been prevalent in eastern Syria and around Aleppo, where they developed a reputation as fierce and effective fighters. In the south, they now are cropping up in the battle for Daraa, as well as in the suburbs of Damascus and along the Golan Heights, facing the Israeli forces.
While the FSA and al-Nusra are brothers-in-arms in the battle to defeat Mr. al-Assad, whichever one controls the assault on Damascus will likely determine the future direction of the country.
With some of the rebel troops recently trained in Jordan, and fighting with arms smuggled across the same frontier, Jordan has incurred the wrath of the Assad regime.
Syrian state radio said Thursday that by helping the "terrorists," Amman was "playing with fire," while a front-page editorial in the Syrian government's al-Thawra newspaper warned that Amman risked falling into the conflict's "volcanic crater."