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Syria Analysis: The Changing Face of a Guerrillla War

See also Bahrain, Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: "Dialogue Sought"?

Syria Feature: Who are the Free Syrian Army?
Syria Opinion: Who Are the Real Opposition?

The video above is chilling. A self-admitted "assassin" for the Assad regime, Sa'er was injured when the mini-bus in which he was riding was attacked. He then describes for the camera how he killed as many as 70 unarmed protesters for two reasons: he was well-paid, and he could have been killed if he did not follow orders.

This is a vivid snapshot of the irregular warfare, waged from both sides, taking place alongside the battle of the tanks that bombard cities. The regime is paying snipers to whittle away protesters, and the Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition groups are turning to ambushes and improvised explosive devices to destroy the army's tanks and prompt fear in regime soldiers.

Assad's forces began the irregular warfare. Since the earliest days of violence, there have been rumours, then videos, then more rumours, that the regime was using snipers, kidnappings, arrests, and torture to wage an asymmetrical war against those who dared to defy it. There are even suspicions that major bomb blasts in Damascus and Aleppo were staged by the regime to scare those Syrians on the sidelines to remain there or to back the regime.

But the Free Syrian Army is now engaging in its own asymmetrical warfare. In late December, and for the first half of January, the Free Syrian Army was making considerable gains, and attacks against Assad positions eased. Regime forces even signed a cease-fire in several towns, most notably in Zabadani, 20 kilometers north of Damascus, in large part because they had lost considerable firepower, and several units to defection, in the assault on the city. The unspoken agreement was that if the Free Syrian Army was content to hold defensive positions, the regime would have time to lick its wounds.

Those days faded as the regime forces retook positions near Damascus, blasted Homs, raided many towns across Idlib Province, and attacked Free Syrian Army positions in and around Daraa. The Syrian military has now set its sights on Hama.

It would be a mistake to talk about the Free Syrian Army as a defeated force. The FSA has carried out its own attacks. Even in Homs, the hardest-hit city, the FSA has been taking the fight to the enemy.

On 10 February, EA posted videos, including this one, of an all-out assault on a heavily-fortified police station in the Bayada district of Homs.

That building is again a symbol of the strength of the militarised arm of the opposition:

North of Damascus, the Free Syrian Army has taken a beating, but they have also destroyed tanks, ambushed Assad convoys, and captured prisoners. In Idlib, the defection rate seems to be increasing, with some towns now looking like Free Syrian Army strongholds. The FSA is now actively defending positions in Albukamal, in Daraa Province, and even near Aleppo, but these defensive campaigns are increasingly supported by asmymetrical operations outside the cities.

Nothing drives this point home more than a recent report from Time magazine from an opposition workshopbusily making IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

The news is not shocking as more reports of IED use have emerged in recent weeks. What is surprising about these reports is that the western media is now being shown this side of the opposition, a side which is not sitting back and defending civilians, a side that now believes that it needs to take the fight to the Assad regime. After China and Russia blocked a UN Security council, more members of the opposition think that they are on their own, and they are prepared to try to topple this regime, militarily, with whatever resources they can muster.

This is another important trend about the increasingly asymmetrical tactics of the FSA --- they do not not require national or regional leadership. Each local FSA militia seems to be coordinating their own attacks, and each is doing so with different levels of restraint. In Homs, there are dark rumours that FSA units have resorted to kidnapping and torture of their own. As the crisis deepens, the Free Syrian Army will be forced to conduct more asymmetrical warfare, not less, which will further divorce the local militias from any sort of command structure.

Unless foreign intervention, even if limited, takes place, expect more ambushes and more IED attacks, and expect the regime to react to those attacks by shelling more cities.

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