Dany Abdul Daym talks to CNN while shells fall in Homs
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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Hundreds Dead in Homs as Regime Strikes
For two weeks in mid-January, the news coming out of Syria was spectacular and unexpected. The Free Syrian Army, a loosely-organized group primarily made up of defecting soldiers from the regimes forces, had captured some key territory, including a major mountain town, Zabadani, only 20 miles from Damascus. News spread that the FSA had also captured significant amounts of territory in Idlib Province in the northwest, was conducting successful strikes near Daraa, and was gaining momentum in and around Homs.
Then the unthinkable happened. The FSA took control of several key districts in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. These suburbs --- Irbeen, Zamalka, Douma, Saqba, Ghouta --- are as important to the Syrian capital as Silver Spring, Bethesda, Arlington, and other suburbs in Maryland and Virginia are to Washington, D.C., for they hold a large portion of the businesses and residential housing of the people who work in the capital. Add the fact that an armed opposition was claiming areas several miles from the center of power, and it is not hard to see why the Assad government was highly nervous.
These gains were never meant to be permanent; the FSA had always said that the regime forces were still far too strong. All week, Assad's men tried to prove that, retaking key positions around Damascus, cutting off supply lines to Zabadani, and launching an almost-perpetual assault on Homs, Syria's third-largest city, besieged for many months.
Last night, after two days of relative calm, there were reports that the Free Syrian Army had won some key positions in the Bayada district in northern Homs and captured perhaps 75 regime soldiers. There have also been reports of several major defections in the area, and despite a week of losses, the opposition had used a few captured armoured vehicles to score strategic victories. It appeared that the FSA was still standing its ground.
By this morning, as many as 300, or perhaps even more, were dead in Homs. Wholesale shelling of the city has reportedly flattened whole neighbourhoods, including a major hospital. The shelling lasted 12 straight hours, and reports of violence continue, with more than 60 killed on Saturday. There are also assertions that a major military convoy is headed to Zabadani.
The Syrian regime is trying to remind the world, the United Nations, its people, and members of its own military that it is still powerful and capable of holding control over its own territory.
The media may focus on this news as evidence of how weak the opposition is. That would be a misguided analysis. The opposition has proved over the last three weeks that it is stronger than many observers have presumed. Its gains near Damascus, though temporary, were a sign that the regime is in serious trouble, even if the analysis that the regime is about to fall is just as foolish.
Still, the regime appears to believe it has been given immunity and can act with whatever degree of violence it feels necessary. With Russia and China holding the line in the United Nations Security Council, Assad's forces can kill 300 civilians on a single day without consequence, as it corrects the impression that the Free Syrian Army\z is a legitimate threat.
However, these extreme actions by the Syrian military also prove one other thing --- the Assad regime is scared that international intervention may not be neccesary to topple his regime. At this moment, large segments of Idlib Province are in the hands of insurgents. Parts of Aleppo Province are loyal to the opposition, and even inside Aleppo there are more protests than ever. The Damascus suburbs are hotbeds of dissent, and the last few weeks have proven that the opposition can capture important territory.
The regime is in serious trouble, but this conflict is not even in the beginning days of a final stage. Expect more violence, more massacres, and more battles in populated areas. Expect large-scale repisals, like the one that happened last night, whenever the opposition wins key victories.
Without a no-fly zone, this conflict will only get worse. The Free Syrian Army will struggle to pose a legitimate threat to the Assad military, even if the fighting itself weakens the economy, and the public support, of the regime.
In early December I wrote for EA and the Huffington Post, that I envisaged a no-fly zone. At the time, I thought that Russia and/or China would veto action at the UN, but I also believed that a coalition led by Turkey and France, or possibly the Arab League or NATO, would decide that the crisis in Syria was too important to ignore. Add the increasing frustration of many nations at Russia and Chinese obstructionism, and I believed then that the world would act.
I will admit that the chances of international intervention are lessened, but I still believe that some powers will eventually step in, even if this will take longer now that Russia and China have vetoed action. At the earliest, intervention could happen in April, but it is far more likely we will not see a concerted effort until mid- to late summer.
Now that the Assad military is on the offensive, and there does not appear to be a mechanism in place to trigger international intervention, it is once again hard to imagine how, or when, this crisis will end. But the Free Syrian Army, and the peaceful protesters, proved something in the last month --- the opposition is growing, it is stronger than ever, and it will only grow more resistant in the face of such violence.
The Assad regime will fall. The questions the world needs to ask are how many Syrians need to die in order for that to happen, and what will be left of Syria after the Assad regime does finally fall.