The Assad regime is using tanks, jet fighters and helicopter gunships to re-establish control in Damascus and Aleppo. Though severely out gunned, the opposition continues to hang on.
This violence will push more people into opposition to the regime. “Every time there are 15 people killed in a village, 500 additional sympathisers are mobilised, roughly 100 of whom are fighters”, claims the former head of the UN monitoring mission in Syria, General Robert Mood.
Opposition forces now control large areas of the Syrian countryside and in July fighting entered the two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
There are increasing signs that the Assad regime is on the ropes. In early August the prime minister, Riad Hijab, along with two other government ministers joined the 27 generals, government minister and leading diplomats who had already deserted the regime.
Some claimed the regime would never fall without Western military intervention. But once again the Arab masses are showing otherwise.
The bombing inside the national security headquarters in mid-July came as a particular shock to the regime. It killed four leading officials, including the defence minister and Assad’s brother in law. The attack was almost certainly an inside job, showing that opposition to the regime has reached even its inner sanctum.
Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, a commander in the elite republican guard and personal friend of the Assad family, also defected in July. His father was the Syrian defence minister for 30 years. Border posts on the Turkish and Iraqi borders have fallen to opposition forces. Kurdish groups have taken control of numerous towns in western Kurdistan.
The revolution in Syria is now more of an armed uprising compared to Egypt and Tunisia, where protests and strikes predominated. But it remains a genuine people’s struggle and deserves our support.
It’s been the massive violence of the regime against peaceful protests that’s led people to take up arms. Assad has killed, detained and tortured thousands and pulverised whole suburbs with tanks and artillery. The regime has armed the Shabiha, a thug militia group, to do much of its dirty work. In Houla in May they massacred over 108 people, including 34 women and 49 children.
By July last year there were enough deserters from the army, appalled at being ordered to shoot unarmed civilians, to form the Free Syrian Army along with civilian volunteers. At first they simply protected demonstrations. But the more the regime responded with violence, the more their ranks grew and the revolution took the form of an armed uprising. Even as late as July this year, there were large demonstrations and merchant strikes in Aleppo and Damascus.
But politics and not guns are crucial for determining the outcome. The revolutionaries are making gains because soldiers are deserting the regime and joining the opposition, not the other way round. This means Assad has lost the argument that the opposition are just “terrorists” and part of a foreign conspiracy.
Reaching out to the Alawite, Christian and other minorities, too, remains a central political task.
While brute force might allow Assad to retake Damascus and Aleppo, it will be difficult for him to win in the long run. With popular support the insurgents will run a very effective hit-and-run campaign.
This will take time, however, and that’s a danger. The militarisation of the struggle gives the West the opportunity to use money and arms to influence and shape the opposition.
The New York Times is already reporting that a, “small number of CIA officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms”. Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been funding sections of the rebels. But the fact the rebels remain so poorly armed is evidence the West does not trust them.
The Western powers still hope for a “negotiated transition” to ensure a neo-liberal, and preferably pro-Western, regime emerges. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has resigned as official negotiator and his “peace plan”, which rested on convincing Assad to step aside, is in tatters.
The West is desperate to maintain as much of his murderous regime intact as possible. According to the Wall Street Journal, US officials have even mooted General Tlass as a replacement for Assad, arguing this, “would help win Russian support for a transition in Damascus because of the Tlass family’s long ties to the Assad regime”.
But whether the West will step up its direct military intervention remains to be seen. If they do it would be a disaster and could lead to the Balkanisation of the whole region as Russia and other regional powers, some with sectarian agendas, join the scramble for influence.
We have to oppose all Western intervention, either in the form of an engineered change at the top, or armed groups with allegiance to the West. The Syrian people must remain in control.