Syria's stalemated conflict picks up speed again
Syrian rebels say they never expected the war with the regime to last this long. A string of strategically important victories may move the conflict along again.
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Twin car bombs detonated in Damascus today, along with two blasts in nearby suburbs, killing and injuring scores – events whose grim familiarity underscores the unexpectedly protracted nature of Syria’s civil war, now in its 21st month.
"We no longer count the days," Ramiz Moussa, a rebel fighter and former civil servant told the Associated Press. "Today we're in a battle, but we can't remember when it started, much less the past battles. You could ask me what day it is, but I can't tell you."
What started out as political protests during the 2011 Arab uprisings segued into a brutal crackdown by government forces, and then today's bloody civil war that opposition groups say has claimed between 30,000 and 40,000 lives.
"At the start, I never imagined it would last this long," another rebel fighter, Abdulllah Qadi, told the AP. "We have been at it for 20 months and we could be at it for 20 more. All we can do is keep fighting."
Today’s car bombs all detonated within a span of five minutes in an area of the city that’s home to Christians and Druze, groups largely seen as supporters of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, according to a separate AP report. Though no one immediately claimed responsibility for the blasts, state media said the attacks were the work of “terrorists,” a term frequently used to describe rebel fighters. Some speculate that the “government is behind the blasts as a way of spreading fear among Syria's minorities,” reports the Guardian.
Recent reports show rebel groups gaining ground against Assad’s regime in parts of the country, with a diplomat in Damascus telling Reuters that "there is a sense that the flames are licking at the door.”
The steady capture of military installations and arsenals is sapping the morale of Assad's forces and also ensuring a modest supply of new weapons to relatively ill-equipped rebels whose calls for a no-fly zone – which proved crucial in the Libyan uprising – have been ignored.
Although they have yet to seize control of a single city, or translate their dominance in swathes of rural Syria into "liberated" territory free of air and artillery strikes, rebels say that their increasing prowess on the battlefield and growing armories have finally allowed them to take the initiative.
"The difference is that we've gone from being on the defensive to thinking and acting on the offensive. We actually have the ability to work offensively now, since we have seized enough weapons," said a fighter with Islamist battalions in Damascus province, who used the nom de guerre of Abu al-Yaman.
Today’s bombings, which shattered windows in nearby buildings and scattered debris through the street, have raised concerns of “a rising Islamic militant element among the forces seeking to topple Assad,” reports the AP.
Analysts say most of those fighting Assad's regime are ordinary Syrians and soldiers who have defected, disenchanted with the authoritarian government. But increasingly, foreign fighters and those adhering to an extremist Islamist ideology are turning up on the front lines. The rebels try to play down the Islamists' influence for fear of alienating Western support.
Numerous car bombs and attacks have taken place in downtown, particularly since last December, reports the AP. These attacks have largely focused on regime targets, including “state security institutions and troops, as well as areas with homes of wealthy Syrians, army officers, security officials and other members of the regime.”
The conflict has not only destroyed Syrians' lives – in addition to the tens of thousands killed, there are an estimated 458,555 refugees, according to the United Nations refugee agency – but the infrastructure of the country as well. The impact will extend beyond Syrians' day-to-day struggles, undermining the potential to rebuild post-conflict. “Much of Syria has become a disaster zone,” reports the Los Angeles Times.
More than 2.9 million homes, mosques, schools, churches, and hospitals have been reported destroyed or damaged since the conflict began, according to the September estimates of the opposition group Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Another 600,000 structures have been reported damaged or destroyed since then.
On streets once lined with multistory buildings and mosques, ceilings lie pancaked atop smashed and dusty home furnishings and appliances. Electrical wires hang like carelessly strung streamers across concrete columns strewn with antigovernment graffiti.
Roads in front of gutted shops have become impassable for the sheer amount of rubble.
The buildings and infrastructure, though of lesser importance compared with the more than 30,000 people reportedly killed and at least an equal number detained or missing, are part of the larger fraying social fabric of the country. Any post-Assad period is likely to be marked by sectarian violence, vendetta killings and hostile ideological wrangling over the future of Syria, all set against an already devastated landscape.
"The regime has said many times, 'Either Assad stays, or we will destroy the country,'" [Sami] Ibrahim [founder of the Syrian Network for Human Rights] said. "It is obvious that it is punishment."