As Syrian forces shelled, rocketed, and sniped their way back into the northern town of Idlib this week, witnesses to the carnage say the sacking of the town is emblematic of the vastly unequal fight between those who want to remove the Syrian regime and President Bashar al-Assad's large and disciplined Army.
“Of course, our Kalashnikovs are no match for their tanks,” activist Omar told Al Jazeera English (AJE), recounting how the rag-tag Free Syrian Army could do little to stop the armored advance on the town.
“A lot of martyrs [civilians] are underground, buried by the shelling…. You can’t imagine what is happening inside the city,” said Omar, adding that 150 people had died in the first two days. “They’re killing relatives of activists, burning activists’ houses … and arresting any activist they can find.”
One year after a popular uprising began against the Syrian strongman – fanned by Arab Spring optimism after the swift fall of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt – Mr. Assad is fighting back, reimposing harsh rule at the point of a gun. First was a month-long bombardment of Homs, then the indiscriminate shelling of Idlib, and now Assad's troops are moving back into Deraa, where the uprising began in March 2011. More than 8,000 Syrians have died since then, according to the United Nations.
While most observers echo President Obama in stating that Assad’s “days are numbered,” some also look at how Saddam Hussein, in 1991, crushed a Shiite/Kurdish uprising, and then ruled over a cowed population for 12 more years. Assad's father, Hafez, himself crushed an Islamist revolt by destroying the city of Hama in the early 1980s.
So far, the Syrian case has differed from every other Arab Spring example, from the scale and brutality of the regime crackdown to the willingness of Syrian civilians, after all the bloodshed, to keep up their protests.
“Not only has Assad absorbed the first shocks of the uprising, in fact he is on the offensive,” says Fawaz Gerges, a Mideast specialist at the London School of Economics who has done fieldwork in Syria in the past year.
“He can mobilize half a million men, skilled, active, healthy men who can fight,” says Mr. Gerges, noting that Assad has barely deployed any of his hundreds of planes and helicopters.
“You’re talking about a regime that has been preparing itself for 40 years for the worst-case scenario,” adds Gerges. “Assad seems to be in charge of how and when he’s using force…. He’s really acting, of course in a very brutal way, but as a man walking tall – not a man scared. Acting decisively. Yesterday it was Idlib, today it is Deraa. This is a systematic, concerted effort; he is going for the kill.”
Why Assad is on better footing than Qaddafi was
Thousands of Syrians turned out today in Damascus to support Assad, waving Syrian flags to bolster a regime that some analysts believe still commands bedrock support of 30 percent or more.
The opposition is ill-equipped, and with little hope at the moment of getting more hardware or even political support. They have only small arms and homemade explosives to counter the will of Assad's forces, which have largely remained loyal to him.
In Libya, by contrast, entire military units defected, and the opposition quite early took control of eastern Libya, with a headquarters in Benghazi. Analysts note that the Syrian regime has many more advantages than did the Libyan government under Muammar Qaddafi, which fell last year after six months of fighting and a robust NATO intervention.
Mr. Qaddafi had few friends, and his declaration to hunt the opposition “like rats” in Benghazi prompted a United Nations Security Council resolution to protect civilians that paved the way for NATO to intervene. Countries like Qatar secretly supplied special forces, training, cash, and satellite communications gear to the relatively cohesive opposition.
In Syria, the Assad regime has benefited from two rounds of vetoes from Russia and China in the Security Council, blocking action against Assad. It has also enjoyed the close friendship and support of its ally Iran and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
Russia has continued to sell arms to the regime, despite its crackdown. Turkey has talked tough but provided almost no assistance to the Free Syrian Army; the US and Europe have “ruled” out military intervention for now, and not even humanitarian corridors to relieve stricken populations seem possible. The Syrian opposition is splintered.
“In the end I think the collapse is inevitable … but now Syria is going through the beginning of a new phase, a very rough one,” says Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born expert at the National Defense University in Washington who is also a member of the foreign bureau of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC).
“We are going to see things get worse before they get better,” says Professor Jouejati. “Despite all the international kicking and shouting, Assad has not seen any countervailing force, so he is of a mind to use as much force as possible to crush this revolution.”
Assad may prevail in the short term, but today he should not be “smiling” because the revolt is so widespread, he adds.
“I think this revolution is not crushable, because the more brutality he is using, the angrier people are becoming, and the more of them there are,” says Jouejati.
Indeed, the International Crisis Group recently reported that despite the regime’s military superiority, its brutal conduct, including “horrendous treatment of detainees and indiscriminate punishment of entire swathes of the population – precludes even a semblance of normalization.”
The humanitarian situation is dire. "They’re burning shops and looting them," said activist Omar in Idlib. "There’s not blood in the blood banks, no electricity, no water. Food is running out.”
Idlib fighter: 'We will win'
Estimates of Assad’s staying power stretch from months to a decade or more, all the while protracted violence likely adding to the death toll.
The diplomatic mission of Kofi Annan, envoy for both the UN and the Arab League, stalled this week when Assad told him that “armed groups” would have to first stop fighting back before any negotiations could begin.
“Syria will most likely descend into a protracted conflict,” says Gerges. “Even if [Assad] succeeds in crushing the locations of armed insurgency, you are going to see more car bombs, more suicide bombings, regional actors arming Syrians from Hama to Homs to Deraa. The question is: How long can Assad survive?”
That was a question the people of Idlib did not want to ask, despite their defiant talk ahead of the Syrian forces' assault.
Mazen Arjaa was captured last year, and showed the AJE television team in Idlib evidence on his body of torture that included fingernails pulled out and electrical shocks that left deep burns.
Syrian forces “accused me of being one of the armed gangs and terrorists, part of a pro-Islamic movement, which meant they could kill me without hesitation,” Mr. Arjaa told AJE, unafraid to show his face on the eve of the Syrian Army’s assault.
Then he turned toward the camera, with a direct message for Damascus: “We say to Bashar al-Assad, ‘We will win. We will win. And you and your regime will lose, and Idlib will be your graveyard.’ ”