Antakya (Turkey): It was a victory that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s opponents had dreamed of: Insurgents seized a key army base in northern Syria after more than a year of trying. But the mood in this Turkish border town, flooded with Syrians who have fled both government bombings and extremist insurgents, was more bitter than celebratory.

The assault this month was led by the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s arm in Syria, which claimed the spoils. By contrast, many of the first Syrians to rise up against Assad in 2011—civilian demonstrators and army defectors alike—followed the battle from the sidelines in Antakya, Turkey, unable to enter Syria under threat of death from the extremists of Nusra and its rival group, the Islamic State.

As Syria’s war heads toward its fourth year, the complex battleground is increasingly divided between the government and the extremists, leaving many Syrians feeling that the revolution on which they gambled their lives and livelihoods has failed.

Different insurgent groups battle one another, even as they fight against Assad’s forces and his allies, foreign Shiite militias. A chaotic stalemate reigns in a war that has killed more than 200,000 people and wounded one million.

In northern and eastern Syria, where Assad’s opponents won early victories and once dreamed of building self-government, the nationalist rebel groups calling themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are forced to operate under the extremists’ umbrellas, to go underground or to flee, according to Syrian insurgents, activists and two top commanders of the US-financed FSA groups.

“The revolution now is sleeping," said Maysara, a landowner from the northern Syrian town of Saraqeb who asked to be identified only by his first name for his safety. He organized some of the first residents there to take up arms in 2011, but has recently shifted his focus to helping refugees as he studies Turkish in Antakya and his fighters, 30 in all, reduce their ambitions to guarding their town.

“We don’t know when it will wake up," he said at a deserted hotel cafe that two years ago bustled with activists, fighters and their financiers. “Syrians will give birth to more children, and maybe they will continue this revolution."

The Syrian government is facing its own problems. While Assad appears unlikely to fall by force, he also seems unable to reassert full control over the country. Despite taking back most of the central city of Homs, government forces have not dislodged insurgents from the al-Waer district. They have faced new attacks from extremists in the east and south and have been trying for months to encircle insurgents in the city of Aleppo.

Mounting army casualties have left government supporters tired and grieving; some are resentful.

There have been tensions in the southern province of Sweida, residents say, after the government tried to renege on an agreement to allow young men to serve in local defence forces and instead draft them into the army.

A Syrian who speaks regularly to security officials and leaders from Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an important component of his base, said recently that a growing number would welcome a political settlement. But with Assad’s inner circle adamantly opposed to any compromise, he said, the country will face a long insurgency.

“Nobody believes it will end in 10 years as long as he is in power," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for his safety. He added that Alawites kept their discontent largely underground because most believed that their choice was between Assad and extremists bent on slaughtering them.

In Istanbul, Antakya and the nearby town of Reyhanli this month, numerous insurgents and civilian activists who oppose Assad, Nusra and the Islamic State said that most of Syria would eventually be controlled either by those extremist groups or by the government.

The fall of the army base at Wadi al-Deif, which straddles an important supply route in Idlib province, proved the Nusra Front’s dominance, they said. Other insurgents had long besieged the base without victory. Nusra succeeded after seizing much of the province from Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, two of several groups that until recently, US officials were calling the opposition’s new hope.

Those groups had received sophisticated US-made TOW anti-tank missiles, and their commanders expected to act as the ground force in the US-led campaign against the Islamic State. But lately they say the flow of US aid has dwindled as Washington’s strategy shifts to building a new force from scratch.

How exactly the Wadi al-Deif battle unfolded remains murky, with different commanders giving different versions. But reports and images from the operation make two things clear: anti-tank missiles were used, and Nusra claimed the victory.

That means that the US-backed fighters could advance only by working with the Nusra Front, which the US government lists as a terrorist group, or that they have lost the weapons to the Nusra fighters, effectively joined the group or been forced to follow its orders. ©2014/The New York Times