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    Middle East
     May 31, '13

Atrocities, disunity threaten Syrian rebels
By Victor Kotsev

Syrian rebels are clinging on to more than half of the country in the face of a powerful offensive from pro-government forces, yet continuing divisions and atrocities perpetrated by many of their number threaten to undermine their cause. This, rather than Russian military hardware or Iranian and regional Shi'ite manpower, is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's most powerful trump card.

Earlier this week, the opposition once again failed to elect a representative leadership, and also likely alienated Saudi Arabia, as Reuters reported. [1] True, it won a powerful vote of confidence from Britain and France, who forced an expiration of the European Union arms embargo against it, and also from United States

Senator John McCain, who visited northern Syria from Turkey a few days ago. But McCain's trip put him in the center of criticism when pictures of him with an alleged notorious kidnapper emerged, [2] while acts of brutality uploaded on YouTube provoked outrage even inside the Qatari royal family, one of the rebels' closest backers (for an Arabic version, click here).

Meanwhile the Russian foreign minister, who has never spared his criticism, accused them outright of "doing everything they can to prevent a political process from starting ... and achieve military intervention". He was referring to a peace conference scheduled for some time in June (a preliminary meeting will be held on June 5 in Geneva) and to the divided opposition's precondition that a deadline be set for Assad's resignation if they are to take part.

But by far the greatest threat for the rebels is the possible loss of support from large chunks of the Sunni population inside Syria in the wake of widespread atrocities perpetrated by them. This is so because their key advantage over the regime is their superior ability to replenish their ranks due to the considerably larger pool of manpower available to them.

No matter how well armed and determined, the government would find it hard to keep up in a prolonged war of attrition against a force backed by the majority of the population. Conversely, if it is able to fully drive a wedge between the rebels and their supporters, it could theoretically win the war.

In practice, the latter is extremely unlikely - there are simply too many people who have too much to fear at the hands of Assad's forces, and will remain loyal to the opposition for lack of options - but some sort of temporary parity may not be impossible to achieve. Continuing reports that "Syrians are having a tough time differentiating between the regime's brutal tactics they grew to despise and the rebels who are increasingly adopting its ways" [3] illustrate this possibility.

These developments are accompanied by a powerful offensive in the south and the center of the country conducted by government forces, Lebanese Hezbollah units, and other Shiite "volunteers". The regime appears set to recapture the strategic town of Qusayr on the Lebanese border, which sits on the last major smuggling route from Lebanon still in rebel hands.

It is, moreover, a military gateway to the regional capital Homs. As a rebel fighter put it to journalists, "If we lose Qusayr, we lose Homs, and if we lose Homs, we lose the heart of the country."

The Russian government is also firmly behind Assad, and while there are conflicting reports on whether it has already sent parts of the state-of-the art S-300 anti-aircraft system to Syria, its refusal to cancel the deal and its transfers of other advanced weapons have sent a powerful message.

Correspondingly, German intelligence revised its previous estimate that claimed that Assad's fall was imminent, and its head said that while the pro-government army was not about to defeat the rebels, it had strengthened considerably. [4]

But it is easy to overestimate the government's achievements. In fact, the rebels have been making a remarkably brave last stand in Qusayr, and for almost two weeks now have been holding out despite being hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered. The fall of the town may appear certain, but according to reports Hezbollah alone has lost some 80 men in the fighting, which amounts to about 1% of its total fighting force.

This is just a part of the toll (the government army has also sustained losses) for capturing some two-thirds of a town of 30,000. Homs is likely to be much more difficult to retake, and by the time the regime forces move to the rest of the country, such Pyrrhic victories may well have bled them beyond acceptable levels.

Moreover, the inflow of Russian and Iranian weapons and foreign fighters is a double-edged sword for Assad. Besides extending him a lifeline, it makes him dependent on the agendas of these forces, and could even backfire and increase chances of a foreign intervention.

Israel, in particular, has been issuing threats, and Israeli ministers' comments that the S-300 missiles could endanger civilian flights over Tel Aviv can be interpreted as setting the stage for an attack on any such installations. Foreign diplomats told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz that such a strike would most likely happen "after the transfer but before [the missiles] become operational", [5] while analysts seem to believe that the latest Israeli military technology could defeat them, though that would be a dangerous endeavor. [6]

Some analysts, moreover, believe that Hezbollah's involvement in Syria would make Israel more likely to help the rebels. [7] Alarmed by the influx of foreign fighters, US officials have also recently threatened to arm the rebels if peace talks fail. [8] Not to mention the latest reports of chemical weapons use by the government, substantiated by reporters for Le Monde, [9] which could in theory help galvanize international action.

All this is does not mean that an intervention is imminent, nor that anybody - including Britain and France-will rush to give the opposition heavy weapons. It does mean, however, that the tide on the ground can easily turn once again. The main obstacle for the rebels is their own conduct, which alienates their supporters both at home and abroad, and not so much the government and its foreign backers.

Sadly, if attempts to establish a ceasefire and to initiate political dialogue falter once again, all the conditions are in place for the civil war, which has killed about 100,000 people to date, to continue indefinitely.

1. Syrian opposition shake-up falters ahead of peace conference, Reuters, May 27, 2013.
2. US senator McCain pictured with Syrian rebel kidnapper: paper, Reuters, May 30, 2013.
3. Syrian rebels terrorize population, The Media Line, April 30, 2013.
4. Syrian Rebels in Trouble: German Intelligence Sees Assad Regaining Hold, Der Spiegel, May 22, 2013.
5. Israel says will act to prevent S-300 missile systems from becoming operational, Ha'aretz, May 29, 2013.
6. Analysis: Israel could swoop on S-300 missiles in Syria, but with risks, Reuters, May 30, 2013.
7. Between Hezbollah fighters and Russian missiles, Israel's stakes in Syria war grow ever higher, Ha'aretz, May 28, 2013.
8. West may boost Syria rebels if Assad won't talk peace, Reuters, May 22, 2013.
9. Chemical warfare in Syria, Le Monde, May 27, 2013.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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