The diplomatic route to change in Syria is firmly blocked. Russia, for its own
reasons, is refusing and will continue to refuse to allow any resolution
promising serious action against the regime of President Bashar Assad to pass in
the United Nations Security Council.
The US, as was made clear by
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks this week, will do all it can to
avoid embroilment in a new Middle Eastern war. The status of 2012 as a
presidential election year will serve to further entrench the default position
of this administration against new entanglements in our chaotic
Yet despite the diplomatic deep freeze, the situation is
Significant changes are taking place on the ground. All of
them are to the Assad regime’s disadvantage. The most important are concerned
with the growing prominence, cohesion and power of the rebel Free Syrian
Civil wars are rarely announced or declared. It is thus not always
easy to set a date marking their beginning. In many ways, Syria has been in a
state of low-intensity civil war since the first emergence of armed resistance
to Assad in the summer of 2011. But late January 2012 is likely to be remembered
as the time when armed conflict between Syrians began in earnest.
recent weeks, it has become clear that the disparate gathering of guerrillas
known as the Free Syrian Army has greater capabilities than was hitherto
supposed. The FSA is now holding the town of Zabadani, not far from the Lebanon
border, which it has turned into a mini “Free Syria.” It is also maintaining
positions across the Turkish border in the Idlib province in northern
The force evidently felt confident enough this week to take a
number of journalists with it across the border into its positions in Idlib,
from where they reported on the fighting. This largely Sunni province is the
heartland of the FSA, with a reported 700 fighters present in Idlib
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For a long period, reports suggested that the FSA was a
semi-fictitious body, consisting of poorly-equipped, sparsely supplied groups of
army deserters with little or no central coordination and a notional
leadership. Few would make this claim in light of the events of the past
Yet it would still be entirely wrong to begin to relate to the
organization as a potential challenger for power in the short to medium
The FSA has at most around 20,000 fighters. The regime can
still lay claim to just under 300,000, including its security services and Alawi
irregulars. The rebels have no armor, no artillery, and a rudimentary logistical
FSA commanders live a hemmed-in life in a compound near
Antakya in Turkey, close to the border. Turkey is domiciling the organization
but keeps its operatives under close control. Ankara understands that for the
FSA, the establishment of a buffer zone in northern Syria is a major demand and
would be a major achievement. But the Turks have no desire to be drawn
into possible clashes with the Syrians because of an over-zealous heating up of
the border by the FSA.
Hence the tight control, which extends to contacts
with the media.
The BBC had to conduct a recent interview with FSA leader
Col. Riyad Asaad via Skype, after being denied entrance to his compound by the
The movement maintains a small cadre of activists in
Istanbul who meet directly with journalists.
Sources close to the
organization noted that they expect the regime to re-take Zabadani at some stage
and that the movement knows it cannot yet hope to hold any area against a
frontal assault by regime forces.
This week, Assad’s forces pushed back
against the FSA, driving the rebels from neighborhoods they had occupied in the
eastern suburbs of Damascus – with considerable loss of life. The regime’s
artillery is also pounding the FSA’s strongholds in Homs city, Rastan and Idlib
Despite all this, conversations with sources close to the FSA
this week revealed high morale and determination. They are still calling for a
no-fly zone and a buffer area, a la Benghazi. But with all eyes on the UN
Security Council this week, there is little hope that such demands will reach
fruition. The Free Syrian Army is nevertheless elated by its growing ability to
hold ground, at least for a while, and to continue to strike at Assad’s
The army claims that large parts of Syria have now become
inaccessible to regime forces except where entered with maximum force. This is
important. A regime that can only travel in convoy through some parts of its own
country is a regime whose rule is no longer complete.
The FSA also
derives hope from an accelerating rate of defections from Assad’s forces and a
sharp decline in the number of troops that the beleaguered Syrian dictator can
call on and rely on.
This week, a Syrian general and former commander of
the feared Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence, Mahmoud Halouf, was
reported by regional media to have defected with 300 of his troops.
guerrilla war of attrition appears to be commencing in Syria.
diplomacy grinds on and the slaughter by the regime of protesters continues, the
armed campaign to destroy the dictator is moving to center stage. Victory looks
distant. The Free Syrian Army, nevertheless, gives every impression of believing
firmly that it will one day succeed.
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