Syrian civil war seems certain as death toll rises among security forces

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 17, 2011 

CAIRO — The Syrian uprising against authoritarian President Bashar Assad appears headed toward a Libya-style civil war, with dissidents increasingly using violence against the government's forces and no apparent letup in the government's deadly crackdown despite a renewed Arab push for an end to the bloodshed.

In November alone, the Syrian government has reported at least 108 deaths of soldiers, police and other security forces in attacks by "armed terrorist groups," while army defectors calling themselves the Free Syrian Army claimed this week to have conducted attacks on several government targets, including a military intelligence compound, an especially brazen move.

It's impossible to verify how many members of Assad's security forces have been killed. Syrian officials have said in recent weeks that the pro-regime death toll is more than 1,000.

But if even a fraction of the reported deaths are true — and activists don't dispute that security forces are being targeted — the attacks on Assad's forces represent an escalation that many analysts say pushes Syria beyond any hope of peaceful resolution as long as Assad remains in power.

"When you see what's going on in Syria now, you see a civil war in the future," said Rami Abdel Rahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. "The Syrian regime keeps killing people and no one's protecting these people. In the end, the people have to protect themselves."

The United Nations says that pro-regime forces have killed more than 3,500 protesters since mid-March. Last weekend, the Arab League suspended Syria's participation over the crackdown and has demanded that government forces stop their attacks on peaceful demonstrators by this weekend.

Analysts and activists, however, said those threats are empty and the Arab League's proposal dead on arrival. Without a diplomatic miracle or foreign intervention, they said, Syria is on track for a bloody civil war with the potential for disastrous regional consequences.

Syria shares borders with five nations of strategic importance to U.S. interests in the region: Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

Iran is Syria's strongest backer in the region and is locked in a battle for regional supremacy with Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and, more recently, Qatar, which led the Arab League's censure of Syria and was the main supplier of weapons to the Libyan rebels who toppled Moammar Gadhafi.

Neither Western powers nor the Arab League has expressed the political will to seek NATO or other foreign intervention, which was key to the Libyan revolutionaries' success in overthrowing Gadhafi. But discussing that option hasn't been ruled out, either, especially if the violence continues to spiral out of control and threatens Syria's volatile neighbors.

Assad still has the weight of influential business elites behind him, and his regime was able to muster thousands of supporters who rampaged through Damascus in protest of the Arab League suspension, reportedly attacking foreign embassies, including those of Qatar, Turkey, France, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The regime, meanwhile, is seizing on the increasing number of attacks on its security forces to drive home its portrayal of the protesters as terrorists and criminals.

Stories about the dead soldiers, police and other security forces, which are published on a section of the official Syrian Arab News Agency's website labeled "the reality of events," are unfailingly written in flowery language describing the slain security forces as "martyrs" for the nation. Some include tributes from their families saying they were proud to have given sons for Assad's fight against "the terrorists."

"Solemn processions were held for the martyrs as they were carried on shoulders and covered with the national flag while the military band was playing the 'martyr' and 'farewell' music," SANA wrote, a line that now accompanies each report of security forces' deaths.

Most of the deaths were reported in the flashpoint cities of Homs, Deraa and Hama, as well as the suburbs of Damascus.

A McClatchy review of the stories, which include the names and hometowns of the deceased, found 108 so far this month. Analysts who closely monitor the casualty tolls say that figure is average or even low for recent months, as the armed rebellion began to gather steam. The extent of the armed rebellion is unclear, however, with media banned from independently reporting in the country and the primary documentation of events coming through grainy amateur video posted online by activists.

Other reports describe bomb attacks on the rail system that have severed service in some areas. According to SANA, armed groups have targeted trains for months, attacking a freight train in Idlib near the Turkish border in October and a passenger train with 500 aboard en route from Aleppo to Damascus in July.

The death toll doesn't include the deaths of civilians who the SANA stories say were caught in the crossfire between armed dissidents and security forces.

Assad hasn't budged despite explicit calls for his ouster by President Barack Obama and a chorus of other world leaders. He's lost his legitimacy and close partnership with the influential Turkish government and is more isolated than ever among fellow Arab rulers. And yet his regime is largely intact, and the fledgling rebels outgunned by his army.

He's stacked his government and security command with fellow members of the minority Alawite sect, whose melding of different religious practices is considered heretical by most Muslim clerics. As a result, he's linked their fates to his and prevented the mass military and diplomatic defections that preceded the collapse of other Arab regimes in this year's popular protest movements.

The move has also given a sectarian cast to the conflict, pitting the majority Sunni Muslim population against the Alawite minority.

"We are losing ground in favor of the sectarian forces. Unfortunately, the more oppression in Syria continues, the more division along sectarian lines will deepen," said Samir al Taqi, a prominent Syrian intellectual and a former policy consultant to Assad who was interviewed at a recent opposition gathering in Turkey. "We are heading toward a very difficult period in which facts are indicating a civil war."

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, still an ally of Assad's, told reporters that all sides — including the opposition — must cease using violence before meaningful negotiations can begin. However, he implied, that didn't seem likely with reports emerging of weapons being smuggled into Syria from neighboring countries.

"I saw a television report about some new so-called rebel Free Syrian Army organizing an attack on the government building, on the building belonging to Syria's armed forces," Lavrov told reporters. "This was quite similar to a true civil war."

(McClatchy special correspondent Ipek Yezdani contributed from Turkey.)

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