After more than a week of fighting with the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan Army Monday captured a strategically important rebel position. The Tigers retreated from Sampur without much resistance, following days of pounding from the military's Israeli-made Kfir jets.
Although a fragile cease-fire from 2002 still technically prevents the country from returning to the 19-year-long civil war, Tiger losses on the battlefield and on the international front have, for the first time in many years, opened up the possibility of an eventual defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The recent fighting shows that the Tigers "don't have the capability to wipe out the Sri Lankan garrisons," says Maj. Gen. Ashok Mehta (ret.), who led an ill-fated Indian peacekeeping force against the Tigers in 1987. Back then, the Tigers withstood the fourth-largest army in the world, killing 1,200 Indian soldiers. "The LTTE [in the late '80s and '90s] was made of sterner stuff."
The Tiger rebels, who invented suicide bombing and are famous for overwhelming targets with speed and fire power, have over the years emerged as a formidable nonstate force.
However, the recent spate of fighting with the government – the fiercest since the cease-fire – suggests otherwise. In fighting on Saturday, the Tigers' sophisticated naval wing was routed by the Sri Lankan Navy as they tried to infiltrate the northern Jaffna peninsula. According to the Sri Lankan military, 13 of the Tigers' 30 suicide boats were destroyed by the Navy while the rest were forced to retreat.
Since the cease-fire, the Sri Lankan Army has significantly replenished its manpower and military stockpile, dwarfing the strength of the Tigers. However, the Army's victories are not being attributed as much to their martial competence as to the debilitations faced by the Tigers.
New Tiger recruits are less motivated, and the rebels now face open defiance by a growing number of Tamil civilians, says Mr. Mehta. The breakaway in 2004 of a rebel faction led by Colonel Karuna has not helped the Tigers. Mehta also notes that the Tigers haven't been firing missiles during recent confrontations – weakening their artillery positions. The Tigers could be saving the missiles for another day, but Mehta suspects that the rebels are acutely short on firepower.
Significantly, late last month, the FBI arrested 12 US and Canadian citizens believed to be closely tied to the LTTE leadership for trying to purchase illegal arms from FBI agents posing as arms dealers. The arms included up to 100 SA-18 surface-to-air missiles purportedly capable of shooting down Kfir jets as well as 500 AK-47 assault rifles. The men also wanted training from the undercover agents to use those missiles, and offered to pay close to $900,000 for the whole package.
According to the FBI, these men also tried through a front organization to seek information to purchase other equipment like unmanned aerial vehicles for jamming radio and radar and global positioning system equipment.
Although Washington declared the LTTE a terrorist organization in 1997, the group is believed to maintain networks in North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia that use Tamil expatriates overseas to acquire weapons.
"The operation has severely impaired the Tamil Tigers' ability to acquire funding and weapons for their ongoing terror operations in Sri Lanka," says Leslie Wiser Jr., the FBI special agent who carried out recent crackdowns.
"The LTTE can now no longer act with impunity in the US," says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism analyst from the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore.
The Tigers also face greater isolation beyond the US, with the European Union and Canada recently imposing bans on the group. Although members of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission have criticized the bans as harmful to diplomatic efforts, others say this was necessary to prevent the Tigers from carrying out terror operations.
As Norway is not in the EU, and is still brokering the mediation effort, says Robert Rotberg, director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at Harvard University, the move hasn't hurt diplomacy. "In fact, the ban has only further impeded the flow of funds to the LTTE."
"If this trend continues, the LTTE will die a natural death in a few years," says Rohini Hensman, a Sri Lankan analyst. Yet, Ms. Hensman emphasizes, the LTTE can only be beaten politically, not militarily. Drawing an analogy with Hizbullah, which could not be vanquished by the more advanced Israeli army, Hensman says, "Even an overwhelming military might cannot wipe out a guerrilla movement as long as it has support from a section of the population."
Narayan Swamy, author of "Tigers of Lanka: From Boys to Guerrillas," points out that the LTTE has faced several reverses in the past – only to rally with remarkable resilience.
"If the Sri Lankan security forces were capable enough to crush the LTTE, they wouldn't need to ask for international mediation," he points out.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is widely believed to have asked Tony Blair on a visit last week to urge India to mediate in the crisis.
In the short term, the fall of Sampur may deepen the conflict. "They [the government] are not honoring the cease-fire agreement," said S. Puleedevan, head of the LTTE peace secretariat after the Sampur defeat. "They are forcing it to the brink of collapse."