Arab World: The Syrian counter revolution begins

A year on, Bashar Assad is hitting back at rebel forces, and thanks to world indifference, he may well succeed.

March 15, 2012 23:46
4 minute read.
Syrian soldiers attend funeral for their comrade.

Syrian soldiers attend funeral 370. (photo credit: Reuters)

Recent days have witnessed the beginning of a determined counter-offensive by the Assad regime. Secure in the world’s indifference and the backing of Russia and Iran, the Syrian dictator is now moving to re-conquer those areas of Syria which had been precariously held by the opposition and the Free Syrian Army.

Just a few weeks ago, the rebels were seizing temporary control of neighborhoods close to Damascus, and over-optimistic analysts were predicting the imminent demise of the Assad regime. All indications are that the regime, having held on, is now seeking to roll back the tide. If the Syrian opposition remains isolated, Assad may succeed.

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The assault on Homs was the first stage of the Syrian counter-revolution. That city – and in particular the Baba Amr area – was the center of the uprising against the regime. Baba Amr alone was thought to contain around 1,000 FSA fighters.

The regime’s assault was well thought out. For weeks, Homs was subjected to bombardment by Assad’s artillery. The makeshift rebel media center was picked off. Two journalists were killed, and two more badly wounded – a useful deterrent from Assad’s point of view.

On March 1, with no foreign reporters remaining in the city to bear witness, 7,000 troops of the loyalist 4th Armored Division began their assault.

They were accompanied into the city by the “Shabiha,” the Alawi irregular forces that have been responsible for many of the atrocities committed in Syria over the last year. Random executions of civilians predictably followed.

The para-militaries rampaged through Old Homs.

Women and children were targeted in the neighborhoods of Karm al-Zeitun and Bab el-Sibaa. According to opposition sources, the killing took place at pointblank range. The Shabiha used knives as well as guns. Hundreds have died and thousands more have been left homeless.

The conquest of Homs is still not complete. Pockets of resistance remain. The Khaldeya neighborhood, for example, fell to government forces on Wednesday.

But the main body of the regime’s work in Homs was over by March 7. Analysts and Syrian oppositionists alike then waited to see if the assault on the city was indeed the beginning of a countrywide move by the regime.

The answer was not long in coming. Opposition websites began to report that a force, including 100 tanks, was heading eastwards from Latakia in the direction of Idlib province.

Along with Homs, the largely Sunni-Arab northern Idlib province is a center for the Free Syrian Army and for anti-Assad sentiment. Since December, most of Idlib City (pop. 150,000) and a number of surrounding towns have been in the hands of the rebels. Because of its proximity to the Turkish border, many had hoped that Idlib might form the Syrian rebels’ “Benghazi” – a place where a rebel army and a united opposition might begin to crystallize.

Assad’s forces intervened precisely to prevent this possibility. By March 10, Idlib City was surrounded by government forces. In a replay of the Homs events, a four-day artillery assault began. On March 14, Assad’s troops re-entered the city and began house-to-house searches.

Rather than make a bloody last stand in Idlib City, the Free Syrian Army men preferred to leave. They knew they had no chance against a frontal assault from the regime’s armor.

Guerrilla resistance in Idlib Province is continuing.

The Jebel Zawiya area, in particular, remains the scene of fierce clashes. The regime has begun to sow land-mines along the border with Turkey, to prevent the escape of refugees and the smuggling of weaponry and supplies for the rebels. Assad’s forces, meanwhile, moved on.

The third target, after Homs and Idlib, was the cradle of the uprising – the southern city of Dera’a. On March 13, artillery and anti-aircraft weaponry began to pound Dera'a. Massive blasts were reported by Al Jazeera in the Dera’a neighborhoods of Al-Abassiya and Al-Arabain on Wednesday afternoon.

The evidence suggests that a clear decision has been made by Assad to seek to crush the armed opposition once and for all. The three main centers of the uprising have been singled out for attention. The regime is trying to break the back of the rebellion.

Can Assad succeed? Probably not. First of all, it should be noted that once the main regime assault on a particular area is over, resistance springs up again.

This is currently the case in the Homs area. In Idlib Province, which is still bearing the brunt of the government assault, the FSA has not been destroyed.

This pattern is likely to apply also to Dera’a.

Furthermore, areas of the country less obviously associated with the uprising – such as the largely Sunni Latakia city and the campus at Aleppo University – are also witnessing clashes between oppositionists and regime forces.

The fire is simply too large and powerful for the regime to extinguish in a single series of moves, as it is attempting to do this month. Assad’s forces themselves may also be far less reliable than he would like to believe.

So the most likely prospect is that the regime assault will continue to move across the country, with the accompanying atrocities in which Assad specializes, but that the rebel forces and opposition activists will still be in existence when the government storm passes.

In the longer term, the Assad regime has a certain advantage in that an international coalition stands behind it, while the rebels have only Kofi Annan.

For as long as this remains the case, the stalemate is set to continue. Assad will continue to hold meaningless referenda and fake elections and will continue to kill.

The opposition will try to hold on. But whatever the outcome, March 2012 will be remembered as the month in which the Syrian counter-revolution began in earnest.

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