Heavy clashes across Syria in recent days provide further evidence that the nine-month struggle to topple Syria's Assad regime is evolving into an armed conflict.
The intensified fighting coincides with yesterday's launch of a nationwide general strike intended to apply further pressure on the Syrian authorities. But its effectiveness in hastening President Bashar al-Assad’s downfall and averting a further descent into bloodshed looks doubtful.
Despite growing international and regional pressure and a worsening security and economic situation, the Assad regime shows no sign of easing its crackdown on opposition activists and armed rebel soldiers. And both sides have hardened their positions to the extent that a negotiated end to the violence effectively has been ruled out, analysts say.
“The opposition is no longer ready to negotiate with murderers,” Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the Syrian National Council, the top opposition body, said in remarks published by Germany's Der Spiegel magazine today. He added that the SNC was willing to hold talks with civilian and military authorities “who do not represent the regime but institutions.”
Rivalry between Assad and his hard-line brother?
The decisionmaking process within the top Syrian leadership is notoriously opaque. However, it appears evident that the regime has opted for a forceful solution to the crisis. A senior diplomatic source in Beirut says that the “hard-liners are completely in charge now” in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
“Clearly, the policy in Damascus now is you cannot show any weakness, no concessions. You use brutal force and it will get you more respect,” the diplomat says.
According to a senior Palestinian official with a Syria-backed faction, a “rivalry” has emerged between Assad and his younger – and reputedly more hard-line – brother, Maher. The younger Assad heads the Syrian Army's Republican Guard and Fourth Division, the latter of which has played a lead role in the crackdown against opposition activists.
“It is a difficult situation between them,” says the Palestinian official, who is based in Lebanon but travels frequently to Damascus. He adds that he believes the Syrian regime will overcome the crisis ultimately.
“It is illusions and dreams to think the Assad regime will fall,” he says. “Iran is supporting them, Lebanon is supporting them, Iraq is supporting them and so are Russia and China. Jordan is doing nothing. And not all countries will join [UN and European Union] sanctions against Syria.”
Voting amid violence
On Monday, the Syrian authorities attempted to show a semblance of normality with the holding of municipal elections across the country.
The polls were held in line with an electoral law unveiled earlier this year as part of a package of reforms promised by the Assad regime in an early attempt to defuse the escalating crisis. But voter turnout reportedly was low, with one polling center in Damascus receiving only 61 votes in the first hour.
At least one person was shot dead Monday morning in the restive Idlib Province in northern Syria, when government forces raided village strongholds for the rebel Free Syrian Army. The weekend saw fierce fighting between government and rebel forces in Idlib and in Israa in southern Syria, where several military vehicles were set ablaze.
The increase in reports of armed clashes suggests that soldiers are continuing to desert the regular forces to join rebel units operating either independently or under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army.
The actions of the Free Syrian Army and other armed units appears to have created a dynamic separate from the civilian protest movement and the armed resistance will probably come to overshadow its peaceful counterpart in the weeks ahead.
Still, the general strike was launched in the hope that a collapse of the economy will hasten Assad’s departure. The London-based Syrian Human Rights Observatory said that Idlib had a “complete and full general strike: no schools, work or stores were open.” It added that security forces looted many closed stores “as a form of punishment.”
Opposition activists are planning to follow the general strike with a civil disobedience campaign to shut down universities, the civil service, and major highways.
Meanwhile, concerns are growing that the Syrian regime is planning to wage a major offensive against Homs to bring Syria's third-largest city back under full government control. Several quarters in Homs are in the hands of the opposition and defended by units of the Free Syrian Army.
The Syrian Human Rights Observatory claimed that some 200 armored vehicles have deployed to the city in the past two weeks, trenches have been dug around the rebel-held Bab Amr quarter, and citizens in areas populated by Alawites, an offshoot of the Shiite sect which forms the backbone of the Assad regime, have been armed. The bulk of the opposition to the Alawite-dominated Assad regime are Sunni Muslims, a reality that has led the uprising to be defined increasingly in stark sectarian terms.
Spillover into Lebanon?
Meanwhile, there is growing unease in neighboring Lebanon that Syria's turmoil is spilling across the border.
Late Sunday night, a Lebanese woman was wounded when a rocket fired from south Lebanon toward Israel fell short and exploded in a village close to the border with Israel. It was the second rocket attack from south Lebanon to Israel in two weeks, the first such incidents in more than two years.
On Friday, five French United Nations peacekeepers and a Lebanese civilian were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded beside their jeep in south Lebanon.
It was the third such roadside bomb attack against the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, since May. Although there have been no claims of responsibility for the bomb ambushes, analysts suspect they are linked to the unrest in Syria. The May bomb attack was the first against UNIFIL in more than two years. The 12,500-strong force drawn from 36 countries is regarded as a soft target by militants. Although Lebanese politicians and factions across the political divide condemned the bombing of the UNIFIL vehicle, those opposed to the Assad regime were quick to apportion blame on Damascus.
“Another message from Bashar,” tweeted Saad Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister. Similar suspicions of Syrian culpability were aired by a top French official.
“We have strong reason to believe these attacks came from there [Syria],” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told France's RFI radio on Sunday. “But,” he added, “we don't have proof.”
On Monday, Syria denied any involvement with the bomb attack against the French soldiers.
“Syria has no link whatsoever with this act which we condemn,” said Jihad Makdissi, a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman who also criticized Juppe's accusations.