Last Updated: Wed Feb 01, 2012 16:09 pm (KSA) 13:09 pm (GMT)

Is the Syrian revolt turning into insurgency?

Syrian soldiers, who have defected to join the Free Syrian Army, hold up their rifles as they secure a street in Saqba, in Damascus suburbs. (Reuters)
Syrian soldiers, who have defected to join the Free Syrian Army, hold up their rifles as they secure a street in Saqba, in Damascus suburbs. (Reuters)

The Syrian crisis that began as a peaceful revolt is quickly turning into a full-blown insurgency pitting an increasingly militarized opposition against a powerful regime bent on repression, analysts say.

“It is the beginning of an all-out armed conflict,” said Joshua Landis, head of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“We are heading toward real chaos,” he added. “The Syrian public in general is beginning to (realize) that there isn’t a magic ending to this, there isn’t a regime collapse.”

And with a diplomatic stalemate over the continuing crackdown by the Syrian regime against the 10-month revolt, the crisis is now also increasingly taking on a sectarian tone between Sunni Muslims and Alawites, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam.

“The regime’s strategy is to sow the seeds that will lead to civil war,” said Agnes Levallois, a Paris-based Middle East expert.

“In the central cities of Homs and Hama, we can already speak of a civil conflict.”

Yet experts say that despite the quickening pace of events and President Bashar al-Assad’s mounting isolation, dramatic change in Syria, while inevitable, is not imminent given the resilience of the regime and the support it still enjoys among the population.

“That the government’s days are numbered can no longer be in serious doubt, but just how many it has left remains an open question,” wrote Yezid Sayigh, an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Centre, in a recent commentary.

“The regime cannot win, but it certainly can resist and prolong the conflict.”

And the fact that the international community is unwilling to intervene militarily is playing in the regime’s favor, at least for now, the experts say.

Russia, which has veto power on the U.N. Security Council and is a staunch ally of Damascus, has so far blocked any attempt at a U.N. resolution condemning the regime’s brutality that has left more than 5,000 people dead.

“The Syrian opposition is slowly beginning to realize that this is not a two-month battle,” Landis said. “So they have to do it on their own, they have no option.

“Nobody is going to come, neither the Arab League nor the West,” he added. “The Americans are not going to come on their tanks like they did in Iraq.”

With that in mind, the Syrian opposition is adapting to the realities on the ground and on the diplomatic front, with the rebel Free Syrian Army taking on a more important role as more defectors and sympathizers join its ranks, estimated at some 40,000.

Although the opposition initially insisted on the revolt remaining peaceful, it has gradually abandoned any pretense of that with the FSA increasingly carrying out guerrilla-type operations against army positions.

In a worrisome development for the regime, the violence in
recent days has gradually gotten closer to the capital, which had remained relatively quiet since the uprising began in March.

“At stake is Damascus because whoever controls Damascus controls Syria,” said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert and lecturer at the University of Lyon 2 in France.

Balanche said that the opposition was clearly drawing support from the urban poor who live in what he described as a “misery belt” that surrounds the capital and over the years has become a breeding ground for Islamists.

He said that the regime was probably banking on the conflict in Syria degenerating into sectarian warfare so that it can portray itself as the only guarantor against the country sliding to civil war.

Experts warn however that Assad’s tactic could well backfire with his regime losing control of the situation at some point.
“Bashar can hang on militarily but not economically or politically,” Balanche said. “In the end, he will nonetheless be forced to step down.”

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