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Tipping Point in Syria?

July 17, 2012

Syrian rebel commanders announced on Tuesday that they are launching an assault on Damascus, the Syrian capital.  Free Syrian Army spokesman Colonel Qassem Saadeddine said that the operation was planned well in advance, it will be the top rebel priority, it will involve rebel soldiers and arms from around the country, and it is expected to last a month.  Reliable information about the status of the Syrian rebellion is hard to come by, but there are some indications that the rebellion against the dictator Bashar al-Assad may be nearing a tipping point.

Reports of defections from Assad’s armed forces appear almost daily.  Recent defections have included military brass.  Last week’s defections included Nawaf Fares, the Syrian Ambassador to Iraq, and Manaf Tlass, a general in the elite Republican Guard and a confidante of Assad.  Assad’s backing among his own Alawite minority appears to remain solid, but majority Sunnis are fleeing.

Rebel soldiers claim that they are capturing significant weaponry from the Syrian military, and the claim is given credibility by videos aired on al-Jazeera showing rebels with rocket-propelled grenades, tanks and armored vehicles.  Decaying loyalty in the military and growing military strength of the rebels are trends that can powerfully reinforce each other.

There is no way to know for sure how much territory the rebels control.  But Richard Engel told Rachel Maddow last week that he had just returned from an illegal trip into Syria, and found that Syrian rebels had in the last month taken control of most of the countryside.  Engel, who is certainly one of the more intrepid Western reporters covering the Arab Spring, spent a week traveling the countryside, and he said he rarely saw Assad’s military.  Assad “controls the cities,” Engel said, but “not much in between them.”  Assad is no longer the president of Syria, Engel said – he’s only the “president of the army.”

Engel also reported that the  Turks are giving the rebels “passive support.”  Assad surely did himself no favors in this regard when his military shot down a Turkish jet in late June – over international waters, according to Turkey.

With the rebels in control of much of the countryside, a successful assault on the capital could mark the beginning of the end for Assad.


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