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Fierce fighting in Damascus signals rebels remain unbowed

Today's fighting in Damascus and three weekend car bombings suggest a protracted fight between rebels and the Syrian Army, despite recent tactical gains by the regime.

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 Al Qaeda’s position on the Syrian uprising, however, has hardened lately.

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In July 2011, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, said in a videotaped statement that, while he supported the Syrian opposition, his organization was too busy fighting “the raging war with the New Crusades” to come to its assistance.

But by February, his view had changed, possibly in recognition of the rising anger and outrage felt by Sunnis toward the worsening violence in Syria, where the regime is dominated by followers of a Shiite offshoot but the majority of the population – including the rebels – is Sunni. On Feb. 12, Sheikh Zawahiri called on Muslims in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan to come to the aid of Syrian rebels. A Muslim should help “his brothers in Syria with all he can, with his life, his money, opinion, as well as information,” Zawahiri said in a videotaped statement.

Still, it remains unclear for now whether the recent bomb attacks are the work of Al Qaeda or an affiliated group.

Rebel fighting persists, despite shortage of weapons

Certainly, the car bombings are of a completely different character than most military operations carried out by the FSA. The FSA, which is composed of some 30 “brigades” of Syrian Army deserters and volunteers, suffers from a shortage of weapons and ammunition and lacks coordination, which limits its ability to confront the well-armed and sizable Syrian Army, analysts say.

Videos posted on YouTube show ad hoc attacks against state targets, such as an anti-tank missile fired at a parked Mig-23 fighter jet at an airbase near Idlib, or a group of FSA fighters mulling attacking a tank near Deraa. But such operations do little to dent the Syrian Army’s campaign to crush the uprising.

Recently, the FSA staged a “tactical retreat” from the Bab Amr quarter of Homs following a three-week siege and bombardment. Other areas of Homs are still under shellfire, according to activists. Following the collapse of Bab Amr, the Army has concentrated its efforts on Idlib Province in the north, where the FSA had taken control of a few precarious pockets of territory. The city of Idlib was reportedly seized by the Army last week.

The military offensive against the FSA has fostered an impression that the Assad regime is beginning to gain the upper hand against the opposition.

“The Syrian regime has shown no sign of collapse,” wrote Ibrahim al-Amine, general manager of Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, last week. “Moreover, the regime’s enemies can see it managed to restore control on the ground in many parts of the country, and has dealt powerful blows to its opponents – especially the armed groups which believed in the military overthrow of the regime.”

But the rebellion does not by any means appear on the verge of collapse. Anti-regime protests have spread further afield to Raqqa, a city of some 200,000 in north central Syria that saw a three-day strike followed by demonstrations last week.

"The most the Syrian government can do is buy more time," says Bilal Saab, a Syria expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. "It can no longer win decisively against an opposition that has nothing to lose and is increasingly determined to take this fight to the end, despite its so far limited capabilities."

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