* Army brutality seen leading to Bosnia-style conflict
* Rebels likely to seek heavy weapons from abroad
By Samia Nakhoul
BEIRUT, March 4 (Reuters) - Few close observers of the Syrian conflict
believe the uprising that began nearly a year ago is anything like over, and
nor do they believe that President Bashar al-Assad can use the siege of Homs
as a springboard to regain full control of the country.
Syrian troops entered the ruins of Baba Amro, the rebel enclave in Homs that
succumbed to month of artillery and tank bombardment, amid loyalist claims
that Assad had broken the back of a Western-sponsored terror campaign
against his government.
Yet some experts believe the authorities' brutality will lead to a drawn-out
Bosnia-style war as well as the further militarisation of a conflict that
began as a civil uprising inspired by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
"The Syrian regime has won one battle in a war it is not guaranteed to win,"
said Nabil Boumonsef, a columnist at Beirut's an-Nahar newspaper. "It took
the Syrian forces one month of siege to enable them to enter Baba Amro
district - this is not a sweeping military victory."
"The opposition will continue. They will not rest or forgive or turn back,"
REBELS TO SEEK HEAVY WEAPONS
It was always clear that superior loyalist forces could overcome the lightly
armed Free Syrian Army, made up of army defectors and rebels who have taken
up arms. Human rights groups and activists say that between 700 and 1,000
civilians may have perished in Baba Amro, the worst single toll of the
"You would expect the regime after several weeks of heavy pounding to retake
a small neighbourhood like Baba Amro," said Peter Harling, Syria specialist
at the International Crisis Group. "This is not a turning point in the
revolution; it is one more development. The rebels will try for heavier
arms, and to obtain help from abroad."
The regime's unremitting use of force against Baba Amro - "flattening the
neighbourhood on its inhabitants" in the words of Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle
East Director at Human Rights Watch - is unlikely to end the uprising but
will likely further radicalise Syrian society.
"I don't think the demonstration effect of wreaking the kind of havoc that
they have in Baba Amro is necessarily going to kill off the uprising", said
Salman Shaikh at the Brookings Doha centre.
"The uprisings will be in hundreds of locations in the upcoming days. This
is not just a fight with the Muslim Brotherhood or any one constituency,
this is now a fight with the people of Syria."
While the Assad narrative is that government forces are acting to protect
local communities against armed gangs and Islamist terrorists, they are in
fact inflicting collective punishments on areas that have supported the
"Take Baba Amro", says Harling of the ICG: "What has the regime done for the
civilians there? They made no serious effort to protect the people. They
punished them collectively and this will further radicalise the people."
Neither side is likely to change strategy. The government will use military
might to force the opposition into submission and the Free Syrian Army, so
far relying on smuggled weapons, will seek foreign sources of heavy weapons,
funds and fighters.
One tactic the rebels might use is suicide bomb attacks against government
symbols similar to those carried out by al-Qaeda in Iraq.
There are reports that Arab Islamist fighters joined rebels in Baba Amro and
other strongholds and that more could arrive.
LIKE FATHER LIKE SON
The Assads, for their part - in particular Maher al-Assad, Bashar's younger
brother and military enforcer - are seen as capable of committing another
Homs or even a Hama, where forces loyal to Assad's father Hafez and his
brother Rifa'at, killed up to 20,000 people to crush an Islamist uprising in
"The son and the brother have done what the father and the uncle did in
Hama. They are following a similar playbook. What demonstrative effect does
this have on the protesters themselves? I don't think they are going to be
cowed," Shaikh said.
"If people are treated this way, more and more will take up arms," he said.
But despite the militarisation of the conflict and the erosion of state
authority, Assad retains the loyalty of the military, political and security
establishment, and is unlikely to be overthrown in the short term.
"The conflict is transitioning into a civil war. Both the regime and the
opposition have sufficient forces to sustain armed confrontation. Opposition
groups are likely to grow stronger as Gulf states, primarily Qatar and Saudi
Arabia, provide more arms and logistical support," Shaikh said.
Defections from the army are likely to increase but there are no signs of a
split in the military leadership, and the opposition remains divided and
The Syrian National Council, the main opposition body, has not been able to
provide strong leadership, devise a strategy to bring down the Assads, or
set up a transitional administration for a post-Assad era.
Russian support - blocking condemnation at the UN Security Council and
keeping arms flowing to Damascus - continues to signal to regime elites that
Assad is still viable, decreasing the likelihood of splits, Ayham Kamel of
But the number of loyal units Assad can depend on is limited to the 4th
armoured division and the republican guard, solidly Alawite and commanded by
Maher al-Assad. The rest of the army is commanded by Alawites and loyalists
but the rank and file is Sunni and the growing number of defections shows
that the authorities cannot rely on them against Sunni opposition.
A political solution is seen as out of the question. Assad's reforms so far
have been criticised as superficial, inadequate and too late.
With Russia and China vetoing any Security Council resolution on Syria, the
conflict could turn out to be protracted and grisly, like Bosnia, eventually
sucking in the international community.
"I feel that we are going down a route where this conflict is going to take
a hell of a long time. That will draw in the international community a lot
more. That sounds to me a bit like Bosnia, which took a number of years to
play out," Shaikh said.
The conflict has already reignited historical animosity between Sunnis and
Shi'ites, from which the Alawites derive, and is raising fears that Sunni
Islamists will seize power, as they are in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya,
eventually tipping the balance against Assad and his regional allies in Iran
and Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah movement.
"There is no Syria after Assad," said a Lebanese Shi'ite leader with strong
ties to Damascus. "There is an established regime and an established leader,
what is the alternative to Assad? We are heading to the unknown and the
opposition is dysfunctional." (Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing
by Giles Elgood)
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Received on Sun Mar 04 2012 - 16:31:26 EST