Armed groups on the rise is Syria as fear of civil war grows

The New York Times reports: For the second day in a row, deserters from the Syrian Army carried out attacks on symbols of the Assad government’s centers of power, targeting the youth offices of the ruling Baath Party on Thursday after firing rocket-propelled grenades on a military intelligence base on Wednesday, activists said.

The attacks, along with fraying relations among Syria’s religious communities, growing international pressure and a relentless crackdown, prompted Russia, Syria’s closest ally, to say that the country was moving closer to a civil war.

The attacks may have been more symbolic than effective, but could mark the increased ability of a growing number of defectors to publicize their exploits. Attacks on government installations — in the southern town of Dara’a and the central city of Homs, for instance — have been reported since the start of the uprising.

The attacks themselves paled before the bloodiest episodes of Syria’s last uprising in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Then, insurgents stormed the office of the Aleppo Artillery School, killing 32 cadets. It was unclear whether anyone was killed or wounded in these attacks, but the constituency of armed strikes and the bold choice of targets has heightened the profile of Syria’s armed insurgency.

The Syrian government did not mention either attack, which activists reported, citing the accounts of local residents. But even without a firm picture of any damage, the attacks were, at a minimum, indicative of determination on the part of military defectors in the face of a crackdown that the United Nations says has killed more than 3,500 people.

Tony Karon writes: [While] the regime is unable to crush the uprising, the opposition still appears to lack the power to topple the regime. The core of Assad’s military remains intact, and willing to carry out the regime’s plan to shoot its way out of the crisis. In the major cities, much of the Sunni urban middle class has remained on the sidelines, while Assad maintains a substantial support base primarily among Syria’s Allawite and Christian minorities, many of whom accept the regime’s portrayal of the opposition as a sectarian Sunni lynch mob.

To the extent that Assad’s repression has pushed the opposition towards an increasingly militarized response, that actually reinforces the regime’s narrative that Syria is in the throes of a sectarian civil war, with Assad casting himself as the protector of Allawites and Christians. On that basis, the regime also appears to have divided the region, with Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen — countries with significant Shi’ite populations, and in the case of Iraq, substantial Iranian influence — having declined to back the original Arab League suspension of Syria. Also, many key leaders of Christian communities in other Arab countries appear to have come out in support of Assad.

Assad can also count on solid backing from Russia, for whom Assad’s Syria is a key geostrategic asset because it provides the Russian navy’s only Mediterranean port, and also from Iran, for which Syria has been the key Arab ally.

But other regional players are raising their pressure on Damascus. The Arab League, with Turkey in attendance, on Wednesday gave Syria three (more) days to act on a deal it claimed to have accepted two weeks ago — but ignored on the ground — to halt repression, withdraw its army from restive towns, and accept Arab monitors. The League suspended Syria’s membership, and sanctions should Damascus fail to comply. Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin reported that last-minute diplomacy by Russia and Iran averted harsher and more immediate measures by the League.

Turkey had a more menacing message ahead of the summit, with officials warning that Syria would “pay a heavy price” for continue killing of its “oppressed people”, and threatening to cut off electrical supplies following an attack on its embassy in Damascus by a pro-Assad mob. Officials in Ankara have begun to speak openly about creating a “buffer zone” inside Syria where it could protect refugees from the crackdown without having to admit them to Turkish territory. That, of course, would mean sending Turkish troops into Syria, and might presage a territorial breakup of Syria into rebel- and regime-controlled areas. But Turkey is waiting for international authorization to take such a step. “It seems out of the question for us to do that on our own,” said an adviser to President Abdullah Gul.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once counted Assad as a personal friend, is now sending a message that the Syrian leader can’t be trusted. “No one any longer expects [Assad’s regime] to meet the expectations of the people and of the international community,” he said Tuesday. “Our wish is that the Assad regime, which is now on a knife edge, does not enter this road of no return, which leads to the edge of the abyss.”

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