SYRIA: IS THE END IN SIGHT FOR THE ASSAD REGIME?
"After seven months, the uprising in Syria shows no sign of abating. An estimated 3,000 people have been killed in a brutal crackdown on civilian protesters. Fears are growing of a full-blown civil war between the army and Sunni defectors, amid reports of increasing sectarian tensions. On 29 October, more than 40 people were reported to have been killed in the city of Homs, and President Bashar al-Assad warned against foreign intervention. Syria’s precarious sectarian balance makes it prone to the threat of civil war. A minority Alawite elite rules over a majority Sunni Muslim population and sizable minorities of Christians and Kurds. The regime has maintained a 40-year grip on power through heavy use of divide-and-rule tactics, while favouring the Alawite minority for high-level military and political positions.
Protesters who took to the streets in mid-March in a quest for greater political freedoms have been openly calling for regime change and even Assad's execution. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of mainly low-level Sunni soldiers have defected from the Alawite-led army. Activists have accused the government of deliberately stirring sectarian tensions in recent months, to try to deflect anger against it. But weekly Friday demonstrations and smaller daily protests continue across much of Syria. 'Gadhafi is gone; your turn is coming Bashar,' is among the latest chants from the streets.
Reports of small-scale army defections began surfacing in June, as soldiers refused orders to shoot unarmed demonstrators. As with most reports coming out of Syria, a general ban on foreign journalists meant these reports were unverified, and when several senior defectors declared a Free Syrian Army (FSA) at the end of July, there were doubts about its significance. Now, however, defections are accelerating and the FSA is being seen as a growing challenge to Assad.
The group is led by officers, including General Riadh Asaad, who is based across Syria's northern border in Turkey. He has said that the FSA's aim is to establish control over northern Syria and use the area as a launch pad for attacks against the regime, in much the same way as Libyan rebels used the region around Benghazi. Having done this, the FSA planned to call for a no-fly zone over the area, and launch an onslaught against the regime. 'It is the beginning of armed rebellion,' Gen. Asaad told the Washington Post in September. 'You cannot remove this regime except by force and bloodshed.'
The exact size of the FSA and the wider support for its proposed initiatives are still unknown. Gen. Asaad claims that 10,000 soldiers have defected, but some commentators put the FSA's strength in the hundreds. Before he left Syria in fear of his life, the outspoken US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, said he did not think the numbers were 'big enough to have an impact one way or another on the contest between the protesters and the government’. He stressed that 'the vast majority of protests are still unarmed'.
Nevertheless, in October the FSA engaged in a four-day clash against government troops in Rastan, a town of 40,000 near Homs and home to the best-known of the FSA's units, the Khaled bin al-Walid Brigade. Syrian army tanks backed by helicopters pounded the city, and seven soldiers and police officers were reported to have been killed. This was the most coordinated and sustained period of fighting launched by the opposition so far. On 18 October, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that gunmen in the northwestern province of Idlib blew up an army vehicle, killing an officer and three soldiers. Earlier, five soldiers were also killed in clashes with gunmen in Homs. Since April, weapons have reportedly been smuggled into Syria, and this illicit trade is now flourishing, albeit apparently more as a means of individual self-defence than a concerted effort by foreign powers, as the Syrian government has often claimed".
Strategic Comments, "Signs of Civil War in Syria." International Institute of Strategic Studies. October 2011, in www.iiss.org.
"Today, the opposition remains weak and the Syrian military has the upper hand. That could change if the opposition begins to construct a real insurgency, if Turkey goes to war against Syria by supporting some sort of insurgency, or if a foreign intervention is launched, such as happened in Libya...None of these possibilities is on the horizon."
Professor Joshua Landis, quoted in, Alison Lyon, "Analysis: Syrian Attack on rebel city mocks Arab peace plan." Reuters. 8 November 2011, in www.reuters.com.
Professor Joshua Landis' most recent comments on the ongoing situation in Syria are of course more or less my own since the beginning of the unrest in that country. Unlike the good professor himself and many others, I have never subscribed to the idea that the Assad regime was about to collapse due to the protests in the various cities. And indeed the fact that the regime is able to both parlay with the Arab League on a so-called 'peace plan', while at the same time employ overwhelming force in the city of Homs and elsewhere merely shows that the regime is absolutely determined, come what may to remain in control of the country 1. And that any pour parlers with the Arab League or for that matter anyone else is merely a diplomatic smokescreen to divide et impera any potential international coalition in opposition to the Syrian regime from forming, `a la what occurred in the case of Libyan this past Spring. With the likelihood of either Turkey or NATO intervening militarily being the ultimate non-starter. In short, I for one, cannot fathom at the present time, any short-term collapse of rule of Assad Fils and his clique. To imagine anything else is merely a phantasm of the highest order.
1. For the situation in the city of Homs, see: Abigal Fielding-Smith, "Defiance of city seen as key to Syria's Fate." The Financial Times.10 November 2011, in www.ft.com. Obviously, I do not agree with the premise of the headline of this article, which one quickly notices is not supported by the information conveyed therein.