Insurgents use a BMP armoured vehicle to attack regime tanks in Jabal Zawiyah in Idlib Province
Wednesday's news from Syria was significant, bloody, and almost completely ignored by the international media.
According to the Local Coordination Committees,--- the third-bloodiest day in this conflict by some counts. What is also important are the specifics behind that toll. The most notable incident was in Thiabieh (also spelled Az Zyabeyeh, a southern suburb of Damascus --- see it on a map). The stark assertion is that 107 people were "massacred"; the question is why. As violence reaches an area that has not been in the news before, this could suggest that the Assad regime is fearful of the suburbs south of the capital, just as they were of Darayya and Moudamyah to the southwest. With clashes in Sbeneh, just to the west, this crescent is a threat to the Assad regime because it is supportive of the opposition and is within striking distance of the heart of government in western Damascus (see all these areas on a map).
While details of the massacre are still being collected, CNN has gathered an eyewitness report. The town was attacked by artillery before any insurgent operations in the area, a claim that matches our own intelligence ) about FSA movements south of the capital:
The attack began Sunday, when regime forces began shelling the town, according to the AlJolan Media Center, an opposition media group in Al Thiabieh.
When Free Syrian Army rebel fighters from Al Thiabieh and nearby suburbs launched counterattacks, the military’s shelling intensified; at one point, dozens of shells were raining down on the town at any given moment, Abu Jaafr said.
By Wednesday morning, unable to counter the heavy artillery attacks with their light weapons and small numbers, the FSA soldiers retreated, he said.
As they withdrew, the FSA soldiers — two of whom had been killed in the onslaught — called on residents to leave, but many refused, including Abu Jaafr. “We have always resisted and never bowed down, and people are too proud to surrender now,” he said.
Within a half hour of the FSA’s withdrawal, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad entered the town and set about raiding homes, killing about 50 residents — most of them men, Abu Jaafr said.
In other words, before any word of Free Syrian Army offensives in the south of Damascus or indication of the occupation of these areas by opposition fighters, the Assad regime lashed out against the populace. This is a clear sign that they believe they are weaker near the capital than appearances suggest.
The massacre in Thiabieh is only part of Wednesday's high death toll, with the 55 people killed in Damascus or its other suburbs also suggesting a crackdown or preemptive campaigns spurred by the explosions in capital.
Then there were the 181 reportedly killed by the Assad regime in the rest of the country. Almost 50 were slain in Deir Ez Zor, a city in the east where the FSA is on the advance. Another 37 were killed in Hama, the country's 4th largest city, arguably the heartbeat of the early peaceful protests --- it is now on the border of west-central Syria, controlled by Assad, and northern Syria, where the insurgents have the upper hand. In Homs, where of the population has left, 34 were killed, including civilians reportedly "massacred" in Bayada. Almost 30 died in Aleppo, 27 in Daraa Province where the insurgency may be surging, and 6 in Idlib.
Each killing likely had its own motives, but the larger picture suggests that the regime is growing weary and nervous and that, despite all the efforts to crush it, the insurgency persists.
Does the regime have new reasons to be nervous?
For the second day in a row, large explosions --- the work of the Free Syrian Army --- rattled the capital city. On Tuesday, two explosions rocked a school next to a major military intelligence compound, a school that has reportedly been occupied by regime troops for months and has been hit twice by insurgents. On Wednesday, two more explosions targeted the Army Staff Headquarters in Damascus, which was then stormed, briefly occupied, and set light by insurgents.
This level of infiltration echoes previous explosions deep within security buildings and military-intelligence complexes, for example, the assassination of the Defense Minister, his deputy (and the President's brother-in-law), and two other key regime members in July. It is a reminder of claims made by high-profile defectors that there are people inside the regime working to bring it down.
Then there is the insurgency in the countryside. Assad's fleet of helicopters has been reduced by a significant margin after several FSA attacks on airbases and the downing of several craft. Even jet fighters have proven vulnerable, and this is before the FSA deploys MANPADS, anti-aircraft missiles reportedly supplied to opposition units in Turkey.
A high-ranking defector announced this week that he is moving his headquarters, and 70000 soldiers, from Turkey to Syria to take the fight to the regime. While I have expressed doubts about the significance of this story, a surge in the strength of leadership could alter the outcome of conflict. There is also evidence of a highly-coordinated FSA offensive near Aleppo that, if it develops further, could pose a major threat to the regime's bases. In Deir Ez Zor, the FSA continues to advance, in Lattakia the FSA has shown a surprisingly strong presence. Tthere is evidence of a growing insurgency in Daraa province, in Hama and Homs the insurgency continues to either hold its ground or grow, efforts by the military to retake Idlib Province have failed, the FSA has made a series of significant (though likely temporary) victories in Al Raqqah, and the regime's military progress in Aleppo is slow, at best, and hugely costly.
This is a stalemate, but it is a corrosive one, one that constantly eats at the strength of the Assad regime, while the humanitarian crisis and threat to infrastructure grows with every exploding barrel bomb and tank shell. The "massacres" and the escalating death toll bear out the claims made by the opposition that the regime does not believe that it is winning this fight.