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Terrorism & Security

Assad honors Syrian Army as it faces defections, and existential threat

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad commemorated the 67th anniversary of the Syrian Army, which is locked in street battles with rebels in once pro-Assad city of Aleppo.

By Staff writer / August 1, 2012

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad are seen in Jubar near Damascus on Tuesday, July 31.

Courtesy of Shaam News Network/Reuters

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Whitney Eulich is the Monitor's Latin America editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She also curates the Latin America Monitor Blog.

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President Bashar al-Assad commemorated the 67th anniversary of the founding of Syria’s Army today as the military fights "a prolonged civil war” with rebel forces and struggles to hold on to its soldiers.

"The fate of our people and our nation, past, present and future, depends on this battle," Mr. Assad said in a written statement, heralding the Army as a point of pride for Syrians and the “homeland’s shield” against terrorist gangs – the government's terminology for rebel fighters – and criminal plots. The president has not spoken publicly since he lost three members of his inner circle in a bombing in Damascus close to two weeks ago, according to BBC

CNN provided further comments from his address

"The enemy is among us and is using inside agents to destabilize the country and the security of its citizens," President Bashar al-Assad said, according to state-run media.

Al-Assad added that the enemy "continues to drain our economic and scientific resources in an attempt to weaken us and prevent us from determining our own future."

"Today, as every day, our people look to you as you defend their honor and dignity and give the nation back its stability and give the people a sense of security and comfort and morale," the president said.

The conflict began in March 2011, when Assad’s troops began a brutal crackdown on peaceful anti-government protests that swept the region in the winter and spring of 2011. As the uprising turned violent, armed rebel groups began to emerge. Seventeen months into the conflict, at least 17,000 lives have been lost, according to the United Nations. Rebels put the loss of lives closer to 20,000.

As violence has heightened, Army defection has become common. Former members of the military make up “the bulk of defectors,” putting the balance of power in Syria in limbo, reports The Economist.   

In Beirut, one young Syrian who was about to be conscripted describes how he paid a $1,000 bribe to get out of the country; others follow illegal paths into Turkey. Louay Mokdad, an activist who works with the Free Syrian Army in Turkey, reckons that 500 to 1,000 soldiers are leaving the Army each day, some deserting and others defecting to the armed opposition. Others who want to flee stay put in order to pass on information to the rebels. This whiff of treachery in its ranks must worry the government the most.

But the Syrian Army isn’t the only one with splintering support. Members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the most prominent opposition group and the one that has been representing the rebels abroad, have left the SNC to form their own organization.

“The Syria National Council was ineffective and produced no results,” said Haythem Al-Maleh, a founding member of the new Council for the Syrian Revolution, according to CNN. The new group's primary goal is to create a transitional government.

A growing number of opposition groups have emerged over the past year and a half as rebels try to overthrow Assad and his regime and to garner international support for their efforts. The Syrian Expatriates Organization put out a call for unity among rebel groups in June, saying all rebel forces must “work together to expedite the toppling of the regime, and to protect our people in Syria from its brutality,” reports CNN.

Meanwhile, rebel groups and the Syrian Army are vying for control of Aleppo. Yesterday rebels took hold of at least two area police stations that were previously used as Army outposts, according to the New York Times. The Army is reportedly attacking rebel positions from a military base on the outskirts of the city as the two groups fight to establish a hold on neighborhoods near the center of the city.

According to the Monitor’s Scott Peterson, who was in Aleppo over the weekend, the stakes are high in Syria's largest city, which was spared from violence until just two weeks ago.

The Battle of Aleppo may prove a pivotal point when the history is written of Syria's fateful civil war, which could bring to an end the Assad family's 42-year dynasty and change strategic balances across the Middle East. The result of the first two days of the assault, witnessed by the Monitor in the Salaheddin enclave, indicate that far more blood will be shed before either side can declare "victory."

Aleppo was late to join the uprising and until recently was a reliable supporter of the regime. Losing it to the rebels would "demonstrate severe government weakness," Mr. Peterson wrote last week

Tens of thousands of people have fled the fighting in Aleppo, leaving nearby schools overflowing with refugees. But many more are trapped in the city and unable to leave for a safer refuge, reports The Los Angeles Times.

Pickups and cars filled with families and their belongings have been streaming out as rebel gunmen battle government forces.

But not everyone has been able to leave. The United Nations reported Tuesday that thousands remain trapped in the sprawling city of more than 2 million… The crisis in the city is becoming ever more dire, say aid workers, who fear a looming humanitarian catastrophe. Bread is in short supply; people are waiting in lines for hours to grab what is available. Gasoline, if it's available, is prohibitively expensive. Cooking oil is hard to find….

"The situation is extremely tense and volatile," said Rabab Rifai, spokeswoman with the International Committee for the Red Cross in Damascus, the capital.

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