As Syria's Assad pummels Homs, West reluctantly weighs military option
After diplomatic efforts at the UN failed Saturday, there is a growing consensus that supporting the rebel Free Syrian Army may be the only way to break the stalemate between Assad and his opponents.
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Backing the Free Syrian Army is seen by some as a more palatable alternative to direct intervention. The FSA is responsible for a rising number of attacks against the regular Syrian Army in recent weeks, winning popular support on the ground and stealing the spotlight from the fractious exiled political opposition.Skip to next paragraph
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The FSA is composed of battalion-sized units of deserters from the regular army and civilian volunteers. The FSA’s guerrilla-style tactics have helped it establish a few territorial pockets, mainly in the northern Idlib province, some districts of Homs and in Zabadani, a town west of Damascus near the border with Lebanon. But it is lightly armed, suffers from a shortage of weapons and ammunition, and lacks a cohesive command and control structure.
Furthermore, a dispute appears to have arisen among senior opposition commanders.
On Feb. 6, Gen. Mustafa Ahmad al-Sheikh, the most senior officer to have deserted the Syrian Army, announced the creation of the Higher Revolutionary Council to oversee rebel military operations. But Col. Riad al-Assad, who heads the FSA from Turkey, refuses to recognize the new council and said in a statement that the “timing of its creation serves the [Assad] regime." Division within the ranks of the armed opposition could weaken their efforts against Assad.
What rebels would need and who could provide it
Leadership disputes aside, turning the FSA into a coherent military force will require “coordinated action by the intelligence services of a coalition of the willing,” says Jeffrey White, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The FSA, he says, would need an assured supply of arms and ammunition, especially anti-tank missiles, secured means of communication, advice on how to coordinate operations across different regions of Syria, intelligence on Syrian Army operations and vulnerable military infrastructure.
“The intelligence services of the US, the UK, France, Turkey, Jordan, and other states in the region have the know-how and capabilities to do these kinds of things,” Mr. White says. “It would be important to have cooperation from one or more of the states bordering Syria, especially Turkey, in order to establish base facilities, training camps, supply routes and infiltration routes.”
On the other side of the equation, the Syrian Army has suffered from defections and desertions as well as low morale, especially among mainly Sunni conscripts in the regular brigades. But the elite units such as the Fourth Brigade and the Republican Guard remain strong and have spearheaded the crackdown against opposition hubs.
“One of the core assumptions about attrition in Syria – namely that it benefits the opposition – is largely incorrect,” says Nerguizian. “The regime has been preparing for decades for just such a scenario and still has a far higher degree of support than is being reported… That being said, the longer the instability lingers and decays, the more likely it will be that Syria will not be able to avoid a deeply divisive civil war.”
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