The battle for Damascus grinds on

Goran Tomasevic reports: Rebel fighters in Damascus are disciplined, skilled and brave.

In a month on the frontline, I saw them defend a swathe of suburbs in the Syrian capital, mount complex mass attacks, manage logistics, treat their wounded – and die before my eyes.

But as constant, punishingly accurate, mortar, tank and sniper fire attested, President Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers on the other side, often just a room or a grenade toss away, are also well drilled, courageous – and much better armed.

So while the troops were unable to dislodge brigades of the Free Syrian Army from devastated and depopulated neighborhoods just east of the city centre – and indeed made little effort to do so – there seems little immediate prospect of the rebels overrunning Assad’s stronghold. The result is bloody stalemate.

I watched both sides mount assaults, some trying to gain just a house or two, others for bigger prizes, only to be forced back by sharpshooters, mortars or sprays of machinegun fire.

As in the ruins of Beirut, Sarajevo or Stalingrad, it is a sniper’s war; men stalk their fellow man down telescopic sights, hunting a glimpse of flesh, an eyeball peering from a crack, use lures and decoys to draw their prey into giving themselves away. [Continue reading…]

David Rohde writes: The Obama administration’s policy toward Syria is a failure. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are funneling more aid, armaments and diplomatic cover to Bashar al-Assad. And Syrian rebels who once hailed the United States now loathe it.

Across the country, pro-Assad forces use airplanes, Scud ballistic missiles and artillery to level rebel controlled neighborhoods. While Syrian insurgents fight with the tragi-comic “D.I.Y. weapons” displayed in this Atlantic slide show.

In an incisive essay published this week in the London Review of Books, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a journalist with the Guardian, described the continued atomization of the Syrian opposition. Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi who covered the dissolution of his own nation, freely admits that “we in the Middle East have always had a strong appetite for factionalism.” But then he delivers a damning description of how prevarication in Washington creates deepening anti-Americanism among the rebels.

“Why are the Americans doing this to us?” one rebel commander demands. “They told us they wouldn’t send us weapons until we united. So we united in Doha. Now what’s their excuse?”

In the meantime, hard-line jihadists and their funders in the Persian Gulf are filling the void.

“Maybe we should all become jihadis,” the exasperated commander declares. “Maybe then we’ll get money and support.”

The time has come for the Obama administration to mount a new policy in Syria. But don’t expect one anytime soon.

In an interview on Thursday, a senior administration official played down a report in the The New York Times Monday that President Barack Obama might reconsider arming Syria’s opposition. The official confirmed that Obama rejected a proposal last year from four of his top national security advisers that the U.S. arm the rebels.

But he said a subsequent review by American intelligence officials had concluded that only a large infusion of sophisticated weaponry would tip the military balance against the Assad regime.

“We have to assess what it would take to change the calculus,” the official said, “and hasten the transition.”

Repeating prior arguments, the official said the administration opposed supplying the rebels with anti-aircraft missiles out of concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of jihadists.

“God forbid a U.S. weapon be used to strike an Israeli passenger plane or land in Israel,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

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