'Civil war' in Syria as fighting reaches Damascus
Over the last several weeks, the violence across Syria has continued to escalate unabated. The death toll since the uprising began 16 months ago has now surpassed 17,000. Large numbers of refugees continue to flee the fighting. More than 500,000 people have been internally displaced in the country and more than 100,000 have fled abroad.
The violence has reached the point where the International Red Cross has declared that the country is in a state of civil war (note: this activates Geneva Convention requirements for the treatment of civilians and combatants; legally, violators can now be prosecuted for "crimes against humanity").
Rebels launch "Operation Volcano" in Damascus
On Saturday, heavy fighting erupted across the capital of Damascus. Rebel fighters battled government forces across the city. Armored vehicles have been deployed across the city. Attack helicopters were seen there firing rockets for the first time since the uprising began. Witnesses say this appears to be the biggest military deployment in the capital in the 16-month uprising: "Before, the security forces were deployed to suppress protests. Now, we have army troops engaged in combat." The director of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP that "[a]rmor had not previously been deployed in Midan." "When you turn your guns against the heart of Damascus, on Midan, you have lost the city," a rebel activist told Reuters.
An opposition spokesman said clashes so close to the seat of government showed that the rebels were chipping away at state power in a capital once seen as Assad's impenetrable stronghold. "If there are fighters in Midan, it means no area will be spared the fighting," one resident told The Wall Street Journal.
Rebel forces say they have started an operation called Operation Damascus Volcano to liberate Damascus. It has called for an escalation of attacks on regime targets and the blocking of main roads all around the country.
Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, a spokesman for Free Syrian Army, said that fighters arrived in Damascus from several provinces 10 days ago to take part in the operation and that more would be sent soon.
"There is no going back. The Damascus battle has priority for us," Saadeddine told Reuters. "This has been planned for some time now. We sent many groups and fighters to Damascus and its suburbs 10 days ago. We have sent at least 50 groups, each with around 50 fighters. We will hit security buildings. There is major coordination between all military councils regarding this. We will not stop, there is no return."
One of the biggest and most organized opposition groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, has called on all Syrians to join what it called a decisive battle.
Rebel vs. government forces
How were the rebels able to achieve the operation in Damascus?
First, the rebel Free Syrian Army has matured as a fighting force. It has expanded to 40,000, acquired arms, and developed its command and control structure. On the other hand, the Syrian government army is increasingly battered. Sixteen months of fighting has exhausted the army and led to deteriorating morael. Opposition sources claim that tens of thousands of soldiers have deserted in recent weeks. In addition. thousands more have been imprisoned because they tried to flee or were suspected of planning to do so.
The rebel army has recently begun to inflict a rising number of casualties on government troops. According to The Washington Post:
Independent analysts who have tracked the uprising say the rebels are staging more attacks nationwide and inflicting significantly more casualties than they were even a month ago.
"It's gone from intermittent clashes to sustained fighting in key provinces," said White, a defense fellow for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank.
Rebel forces are better equipped than they were even a few weeks ago, with an apparently plentiful supply of ammunition along with more machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, White said. As a result, casualties among Syrian troops have soared over the past few weeks, to about 150 killed and wounded each day, he said. The rebel Free Syrian Army also is becoming more effective at destroying military vehicles and commandeering weapons and supplies from government forces and pro-government militias, he said.
As a result, government troops have pulled back from rural areas and have concentrated forces in urban areas. In the last two weeks they have retreated from areas in rural Idlib and Aleppo bordering Turkey's Hatay province. In addition, the Syrian Army has pulled units from the Golan Heights on the Israeli border to support fighting in Damascus. This has left rebel forces in control of large areas of Syria. One rebel commander claimed they control 70% of Syria. This has given the rebel army the freedom to move fighters around the country, thus allowing them to converge their forces on Damascus.
Regime change or civil war?
Reuters provides a summary of the current situation in Syria. The Assad regime is under severe pressure. It is still fighting hard...
As the rebellion gains ground, Assad's inner circle is beginning to realize it faces a serious crisis. "In the hierarchy of the authorities you don't see a noticeable change," he said. But "you hear more realistic language. The prestige and standing of the regime has been scratched".
After 16 months, the conflict has reached the seat of Assad's power in Damascus. Government forces and opponents are fighting with the ferocity of those who know what awaits them if they lose.
"There is war in Syria: either kill or be killed," said the pro-Syrian Lebanese politician.
A Western diplomat added: "They are fighting like a pack of wolves."
But the Assad regime is "sinking" ...
"The Syrian regime is slowly and totally sinking. I don't know what the timeline will be. It is becoming difficult for the state to control the country. It is like a fire engine, they extinguish one fire and find that another fire has started in another place," said a senior Western diplomat.
In outlying cities and on the outskirts of the capital, residents say the only sign of any government presence is tanks and armored personnel carriers stationed on main roads. Traffic and ordinary police are nowhere to be seen.
Residents stood in disbelief at the sight of rebels manning checkpoints, blocking streets and clashing with government troops in Damascus. "A few days ago, we would have said this was impossible. It is a dangerous indication," said a resident reached by telephone.
Government forces are scared of entering some rebel areas and they use artillery and helicopters gunships to bomb rebel positions, Syrians reached by telephone say.
Some analysts say the regime may survive...
Close watchers of Damascus say while the authorities' power has been eroding they doubt that the lightly armed rebels can defeat an army, backed with Russian-made tanks, armored personnel carriers and warplanes.
"Bashar and his regime have been profoundly destabilized but there is some doubt whether he can be toppled by the rebels for all the following reasons: Russia's protection, a divided opposition and no appetite for military intervention," said Assad biographer Patrick Seale.
But he added: "No regime can last forever ... I cannot see a peaceful settlement for the moment. I can see a bloody stalemate, more shooting, more killing. The situation is very bad, chaos and insecurity are everywhere. Kidnapping, killing and hostage-taking, ethnic-cleansing are rife," Seale said.
He said Assad's officer corps would not give up on him unless they feel they will have a role in a post-Assad Syria.
But a civil war is more likely.
"The regime has not lost full control. We will transition into civil war. The opposition has become a lot more powerful and capable at the military and financial level with the help of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey," said Ayham Kamel of Eurasia.
"Incrementally, the regime will become weaker," he said. "Change will come in two ways: either through a shift in the balance of power in the conflict, or though a prolonged civil war, or through a negotiated compromise and international transition plan sponsored by the US and Russia," he added.
"Even if Bashar goes it doesn't mean that someone will take over," he added, suggesting that the country will collapse into sectarian anarchy.
In the meantime, the authorities have upped their game, using tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships against rebels waging what they call "The Battle of Damascus".
"The question Damascenes ask has changed from before," one resident said. "They no longer ask if the regime will fall but when?