Rebels’ rise a threat to Syrian army

By: Liz Sly

An increasingly effective Syrian rebel force has been gaining ground in recent weeks, stepping up its attacks on government troops and expanding the area under its control even as world attention has been focused on pressuring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to comply with a UN ceasefire.

Syrian rebels brandish their weapons and a flag during a training session.

The loosely organised Free Syrian Army now acknowledges that it is also no longer observing the truce, although rebel commanders insist they are launching attacks only to defend civilians after two recent massacres in which most of the 186 victims were women and children.

The rebels say they are acquiring access to ammunition and funding that had been in short supply a few months ago, streamlining their structures to improve co-ordination while steadily eroding the government’s capacity to control large swaths of the country.

On Saturday, two neighbourhoods in the central city of Homs that have come under the sway of the Free Syrian Army were bombarded by government forces in a further sign that the chances of imposing a ceasefire soon remain slim.

The increased activity comes as an international effort to aid the Free Syrian Army quietly gathers pace. Although the rebels insist they are still not being helped by foreign countries, they say they now have ample access to money from Syrian opposition figures and organisations outside the country to purchase supplies.

US officials and Syrian opposition figures said last month that a discreet effort by Arab Gulf states to channel funds and weapons to the rebels – an undertaking the US is helping to co-ordinate – had begun to gear up. Analysts say the rebels’ apparent progress suggests that the assistance is having an effect, driving a deepening conflict and perhaps intensifying pressure on the government to make concessions, even as world powers continue to rule out military intervention.

The lightly armed rebels, equipped mostly with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and some mortars, are still a long way from being able to inflict defeat on the superior Syrian army. They are also far from achieving the capabilities of Libya’s rebels, who quickly seized control of a large chunk of territory and a major arsenal.

The Syrian rebels ”are never going to be capable of driving on Damascus and driving out the regime,” said Jeffrey White, a former Defence Intelligence Agency official. But, he said, with their repeated hit-and-run attacks on Syrian outposts and convoys, it is clear that ”they’re increasing pressure on the regime, increasing attrition and increasing defections”.

”They’re looking stronger to me, and better,” Mr White said. ”People have been calling them a ragtag force, and I just don’t think that’s accurate any more. I would describe them as an increasingly capable guerilla force.”

The rebels are also gaining confidence and say they are inflicting heavy casualties on government troops, and though confirming that is impossible, the official Syrian Arab News Agency has recently reported a growing number of deaths. In the past 10 days, 234 members of the security forces killed in the violence have been buried at honorary military funerals, according to a tally of the reports – a record 57 of them on Saturday.

The government is escalating its use of force in response to the rebels’ gains. Many parts of northern and central Syria have effectively fallen under the sway of the rebels, said Joseph Holliday, a researcher who tracks Free Syrian Army activity for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

”They’re making it really hard for the regime to move around, for them to get out of their little checkpoints that they’re barricaded into,” said Mr Holliday.

Source: The Washington Post

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