As more and more soldiers defect from the regular army to join the rebels, the Syrian regime is starting to lose control over some areas of the country, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
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Members of the Free Syrian Army hold their weapons during a training session on the outskirts of Idlib
Despite the daily brutality carried out by the Syrian regime against the protesters over the past 15 months, their impetus has not waned and the demonstrations are expanding. More and more demonstrators have also been joining the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight against the regime's military and militia forces.
This irregular army, comprised of army defectors and volunteers, has now been able to take control of towns and villages across Syria and has even reached the outskirts of the capital Damascus. The sound of gunfire has become commonplace for many Syrian citizens, and the opposition asserts that the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has started to lose control in many regions and is therefore simply using heavy artillery to demolish them.
According to statistics issued by the opposition, regime forces are now suffering massive losses at the hands of the FSA, with 20,000 regular army and militia soldiers having been killed. Some 556 tanks, 379 armoured vehicles, 148 military trucks and six helicopters have been taken out of commission after being attacked, and estimated loses stand at more than $10 billion.
Defections by officers and soldiers from the army and security apparatus are also unsettling the Syrian leadership, since not a day now passes without dozens and sometimes even hundreds abandoning the regular forces for the FSA even though execution is the automatic penalty.
In one unprecedented development since the start of the Syrian uprising 15 months ago, a colonel from the armed forces defected with his MiG-21 fighter jet to Jordan and was granted political asylum when he landed. His original mission had been to bomb the southern Syrian city of Deraa.
On the same day, a group of four senior officers announced their defection from the regular army, and according to opposition activists more than ten senior army officers arrived in Turkey after deserting from the regular army, while three military pilots joined their colleague in Jordan, leaving their jets behind.
Such defections, the Syrian opposition says, indicate that the regime's increasing global isolation is starting to affect the loyalty of the army.
Up till now, there have been few defections by diplomats and politicians because of a campaign that forces the families of such officials to stay inside Syria, according to one opposition group, making them potential hostages.
Meanwhile, security reports have revealed that senior Syrian military leaders have been plotting their exit strategies, opening up channels of communication with the revolutionaries in order to discuss joining their ranks once they abandon the regime. These senior leaders apparently even include some members of Al-Assad's inner circle.
However, despite such successes the FSA lacks coordination and capabilities, and it is not yet able to defeat the regime on the military front. Its numbers and weapons are dwarfed by the regular army's, which possesses tanks, fighter helicopters and hundreds of thousands of soldiers, together with security troops and militias.
However, the longer the uprising lasts, the more able it is to develop into a more-organised force, and more civilians are also volunteering. Although these volunteers at first wanted only a peaceful uprising against the totalitarian regime, they have now become more militant as a result of the violence inflicted on them by the regime.
There are few statistics about the size of the FSA, though estimates suggest that it has between 30,000 and 70,000 fighters and no unified leadership. However, there are regional military councils, and these are trying to link FSA units to the army's Supreme Military Council, or leadership structure.
Most of the decisions on the ground are left to specific groups, without orders being given by central command.
The FSA is gaining more popularity every day among protesters, and it mostly functions in a friendly environment that gives it assistance and refuge. However, not everyone has been so friendly, and some in the opposition, especially in the opposition inside the country, fear that the FSA will continue to grow without an appropriate organisational structure and that at some point this could become a recipe for chaos.
Such people also reject the notion that any transitional phase could be overseen by the military.
Meanwhile, the UN has reported that the number of people in need of humanitarian aid in Syria has risen to 1.5 million. Half the country's hospitals are not completely operational, while fuel for transportation is about to run out.
"The number of dead civilians has reached 14,366, while there are 3,772 dead among the military forces," Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Syrian Human Rights Monitor, an NGO, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"There have been 836 defections from the army, these figures not including the thousands who are missing in Syrian prisons and detention camps, nor the dead armed militias, numbering in the thousands, that are loyal to regime."
Abdel-Rahman said that there were around 32,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, 85,000 in Jordan, and 28,000 in Lebanon.
Asked whether there would be action on the human rights front regarding possible crimes against humanity in Syria, Abdel-Rahman said that "there is no link between the human rights issue and the political issues. The crimes being committed against the people of Syria are crimes against humanity, and they will not go unpunished irrespective of what the political settlement will be."
"The people of Syria will not allow killers and criminals to escape justice. We are preparing a case documenting the crimes being committed against the Syrian people, and we intend to present it to the international courts."
A few months ago, the main source of weapons for the FSA was still what its fighters were able to capture during skirmishes or seize from regime arsenals, together with what they were able to buy from smugglers and elements in the regular army.
However, according to several western security reports, advanced weapons are now reaching the FSA from the Gulf states that want to overthrow the Al-Assad regime, possibly resulting in major changes in the days to come.
For the time being, the US administration has been holding out against arming the FSA in the hope that there will be a political solution to the crisis. According to US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, "we took a decision not to offer combat assistance at this stage. I know others took their own decisions."
Panetta said that the US was concerned that shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles stolen from Libya last year during the overthrow of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi could find their way to Syria.
Meanwhile, Russia has been continuing to support the regime, openly supplying it with attack helicopters used by Syrian forces to bomb towns and villages. Moscow does not deny sending the weapons, but claims that they are meant for defensive purposes only and not for use against the protesters.
However, the main problem for the time being is not the sending of weapons to Syria. Rather, it is the international political situation, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich saying that "the shape of the new world order will depend on how the situation in Syria is resolved."
Lukashevich's statement was explained by observers as an attempt by Russia to use the Syrian crisis as a way of restoring its stature as a world power and a respected international player, meaning that Russia will try to put all its weight behind resolving the Syrian problem according to its best interests.
The suspension of the mission of the 300 international monitors in Syria, part of the plan brokered by former UN secretary-general Kofi Anan, has triggered more violence, as expected, but the opposition still does not want the mission to return in its current format.
Instead, it wants the mission to evolve from observation to armed peacekeeping, according to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, with greater numbers and better equipment and an extended mandate to end the fighting and neutralise the army and security forces.
This would be a prelude for political dialogue between the opposition and the regime that would lead to the peaceful transfer of power, the opposition says.
Observers have proposed various scenarios for the coming phase, including mounting international pressure on the regime and the issuing of a series of stiff sanctions by the UN Security Council, such as establishing humanitarian corridors to help the injured and the delivery of humanitarian aid to those who need it.
If the regime does not respond to such measures, the international community could resort to UN resolutions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
However, other observers favour a scenario similar to the one that took place in Yemen, under which former president Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down from power. Others still insist that the overthrow of the Syrian regime will be triggered by the collapse of the country's economy -- signs of which have already started to be evident.
Some observers have gone further and called for a no-fly zone and buffer zones on the northern and southern borders of Syria in order to protect the FSA and support it by issuing it with modern weapons, thereby allowing it to liberate the country by force.
The international community has yet to draw up any conclusive roadmap for a solution in Syria, though some expect decisive action in the next few weeks or months at the most.
Others, however, expect a long war of attrition, and the crisis remains open to various possibilities, whether military or political. The West has been insisting that preparations should be made for a military solution in case a political resolution is not possible, while the opposition continues to demand the overthrow of the regime and the bringing of its key figures to justice.