Sunday, September 9, 2012

No letting up

The Economist

Mr Assad has tried various tactics to stamp out the uprising, now entering its 18th month. First he promised reform, as his security forces shot at peaceful protesters. Then the regime claimed that all was well but for a few rogue “terrorists”. Now, having admitted that he is fighting a real war, Mr Assad is offering a choice: his regime must be accepted or his army will scorch the earth of those who go against it.

The regional governor in charge of Daraya, a rebellious working-class suburb of the capital, Damascus, that was devastated by Mr Assad’s forces in August, recently visited it bearing bread. A kindly speech about resupplying the stricken town was followed by a stark warning, says a resident at the scene: harbour the rebels again and Daraya will be razed to the ground.

Such warnings are taken seriously. Across the country, the army’s snipers, artillery and war planes ceaselessly pummel areas suspected of rebel sympathies. With growing frequency clusters of corpses, usually of young men with hands bound, have been found dumped by the road in government-held areas. On September 5th, 45 such bodies were said to have been retrieved in one incident. Ruthless loyalist assaults have kept central Damascus firmly under government control. Loyalist forces have regained patches of ground in Aleppo, the fiercely contested second city.

Yet there are signs of ebbing government strength. The practice of pushing oil drums full of explosives out of helicopters suggests that the air force may be running out of bombs. The regime has also begun drafting reservists into the army, whose combat strength, on paper, of 280,000 men is being badly depleted by casualties, defections and dipping morale. “We don’t know if they need us or just want us so we can’t fight against them,” says a 30-year-old who left for Lebanon as soon as the police came knocking to call him up.

But the regime’s threats and its determination to consolidate may work in some areas. Its narrative of an armed Islamist and sectarian uprising is becoming self-fulfilling, thanks largely to the violence inflicted overwhelmingly against Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. Playing on fears of Sunni vengeance, the ruling clan now offers arms to local self-defence militias that draw from minorities other than its own Alawite sect, which makes up a tenth of the population but dominates the security forces. A mysterious spate of attacks attributed by the regime to “terrorists” has stoked anxieties in Jaramana, a sprawling Damascus suburb that houses many Christians and Druze. “Some people want to throw their hands up and say OK, whoever, we just want it to stop,” says a local.

Light your neighbours’ fire

Mr Assad may be signalling a willingness to spread fires abroad, too. In Lebanon alleged transcripts of an interrogation by the Lebanese police of Michel Samaha, a former government minister close to Mr Assad arrested in August, suggest that top Syrian security officers had supplied him with bombs intended to kill various Lebanese Sunni and Christian figures......

Such divisive tactics have long been a hallmark of the Assad family’s rule. Although opposition fighters have alienated some propertied city dwellers, they retain the support of much of the rural population and have continued to wear down Mr Assad’s forces. Attacks on government supply convoys have stranded remoter army units and ground assaults on air bases are beginning to take a toll on Mr Assad’s air force: three out of its 27 bases may no longer be operable. Helicopters are now rarely sighted in Syria’s rebel-dominated north-west because fighters have fashioned weapons to shoot them down.

Pointing to their successes, rebel commanders say they will push on, with or without outsiders’ help....."

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