Analysis: Syrian civil war enters new phase (JERUSALEM POST) By JONATHAN SPYER 07/19/12)
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For most of the past 16 months, the insurgency against the regime of
President Bashar Assad has been confined to certain specific areas of
the country. Assad has also managed to keep the top levels of his own
elite intact, and largely loyal.
The regime has done its utmost to preserve this situation, and above
all to maintain quiet in the two largest cities of the country, the
capital Damascus, and Aleppo.
But the regime has failed.
The clashes in Damascus this week, the growing stream of defections
and yesterdayís bomb attack on the National Security Building in the
capital, set the seal on the failure. The deaths of Defense Minister
Daoud Rajiha, Assadís brother-in- law Assef Shawkat and former chief
of staff Hassan Turkmani in a bomb attack on a meeting of senior
officials in Damascus exemplify the sharp erosion in the regimeís
position in recent weeks.
The intelligence required for such an operation indicates that
individuals close to the Assad regimeís inner sanctum are now
providing information to its enemies. However, observation of the
fighting in Damascus suggests the latest developments do not yet
represent the climactic battle for the control of Syria.
The trend of events in the Syrian civil war is clear. Assadís power
and options are dwindling; those of the rebels are growing.
But the dictator is not yet finished.
While the outbreak of fighting in Damascus this week appeared to
erupt out of nowhere, this was not the case. That misleading
impression derives from the inadequacy of media coverage because of
restrictions imposed by the regime. In reality, the security
situation in Damascus has been deteriorating for some time.
Rebels fought government forces in the Kfar Soussa district in mid-
June. These clashes were seen by many Damascus residents as the
writing on the wall.
A large number of middle- and upper-middle-class Syrians have left
the city over the past months. The overt security presence on the
streets of the capital has sharply increased.
The immediate cause of the fighting this week, meanwhile, was a
regime initiative, rather than one undertaken by the Free Syrian
Army. The government wanted to drive out FSA fighters from a number
of Damascus neighborhoods. It therefore began the shelling of the
Tadamon area, close to downtown Damascus, as a first step.
The rebels fought back, challenging government armor, and the
fighting spread to a number of other areas, most notably the Midan
The FSA rushed large numbers of fighters toward the capital, to take
advantage of the breakdown of order in the city. The decision by the
regime to abandon the last pretenses of normality, in order to try to
prevent the erosion of its position in Damascus, is testimony to its
increasingly beleaguered position.
Still, opposition fighters confirmed that despite the public
proclamations, the FSA sees the current clashes in the city as a test
of strength between the sides, rather than the final, climactic
Two things should be noted regarding the latest events: First, the
steeply improved performance of the rebels over the last three months
is the result of increased aid to the FSA and other elements from
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. There are credible claims of US
intelligence involvement in this process, and less clear rumors of
involvement of Western special forces in the training of the rebels.
The improved capabilities of the rebels are being felt in the
realities of the combat on the ground. They are now inflicting a
steady toll on the government forces, averaging 150 killed and
wounded daily. It also looks likely that the FSA was responsible for
the bomb attack in Damascus.
Second, the pattern of regime activity suggests that Assad does not
believe the battle will be decided in Damascus. Rather, the regime is
currently engaged in a process of ethnic cleansing in the north-west
of the country.
It is trying to carve out an area of purely Alawite population west
of Homs and Hama cities.
The recent massacres in Tremseh and Houla appear to constitute
elements of this plan.
Once this Alawite enclave is achieved, it will then form the baseline
for further conflict between Alawites and Sunnis in Syria.
As Assadís forces lose control of increasing parts of the country,
they are attempting to consolidate their position in the areas still
under their power, including the capital. They are doing so by all
available means, including helicopter gunships and artillery fire on
civilian neighborhoods. The pretense of normality is a luxury the
regime can no longer afford.
So the outbreak of fighting in Damascus and the attack on Assadís
inner sanctum represent an important turning point in the Syrian
The rebels are winning. But the latest events do not yet herald the
beginning of the regimeís last stand.
That moment has not yet arrived. When it does, it may well not take
place in Damascus. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post 07/19/12)
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