BEIRUT, Lebanon – 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 Assad to comply with a U.N. cease-fire.
The loosely organized 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.
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 coordination.
On Saturday, two neighborhoods 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 cease-fire soon remain slim.
Residents cowered in basements as shells slammed repeatedly into the city, sending clouds of smoke billowing into the sky, according to videos posted online.
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 organizations outside the country and are using it to buy supplies on a revived black market inside Syria.
U.S. 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 United States is helping to coordinate — had begun to gear up.
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.
The Syrian rebels “are never going to be capable of driving on Damascus and driving out the regime,” said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 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,” White said. “People have been calling them a ragtag force, and I just don’t think that’s accurate anymore. I would describe them as an increasingly capable guerrilla force.”
The rebels are also gaining confidence.
“Every day we control more territory, every day we have more defections, and we are having better organization in our ranks,” said Maj. Sami al-Kurdi, a spokesman for the Homs Military Council, one of the new military structures that are being established around the country. “The regime now controls only the territory under its tanks, and the evidence is that they don’t dare step out of their tanks.”
Verifying such claims is difficult because the Syrian government restricts access to journalists. But military experts who monitor the evolving conflict say they have detected an uptick in the number of videos of rebel attacks posted online.
The government still has the capacity to use overwhelming force against rebel strongholds, but it “can’t bring force to bear everywhere at the same time,” said Amr al-Azm, a professor of history at Shawnee State University in Ohio who is active in the Syrian opposition.
“They can go in and suppress an area, but as soon as they leave it, it is out of their control,” he said.
A result is that 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 Holliday, a veteran of the Iraq war who compared the predicament of Syrian forces to that of U.S. troops in Iraq during the height of the fighting there. “We were pinned down. We couldn’t get around,” he said.
Rebel commanders credit the growing demoralization of the regular army, in part, for their performance. Defections continue at a steady rate and troops are weary after nearly 15 months of continuous deployment in the effort to suppress the rebellion, they say.
Source: Washington Post