Lethal Weapons Raise Syrian Body Count

BY Larisa Epatko and P.J. Tobia  June 11, 2012 at 2:22 PM EDT


Syrian security forces inspect an explosion that targeted a military bus near Qudssaya, a neighborhood of Damascus, on June 8. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

Syria’s opposition is advancing in terms of weapons and communications support, and the regime under President Bashar al-Assad is responding by clamping down on towns and villages, racking up casualties on both sides, some analysts are saying.

But while the Free Syrian Army’s weapons, some which reportedly come from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are getting more sophisticated, they still are no match for the regime, said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The anti-tank weapons are a potential game-changer, said Frederic Wherey, senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Previously, when the regime launched a withering armored assault, the opposition could not respond at all. Individual soldiers now are also better equipped with body armor and personal weapons, he said.

The Free Syrian Army itself has different levels: Some members are deserters of the Syrian army — they are the ones who conduct military operations against the Syrian army — and regular civilians who are like the minutemen in the American Revolutionary War and are working to push security forces back so that they can protest in the streets, Tabler said.

There is no command structure among them, but nonetheless they are becoming more coordinated possibly because of the help they are getting from international supporters in the area of communications, he said. The U.S. administration, which has taken the stance that Assad must go, is providing non-lethal support such as medical aid to the opposition.

Because of these advancements, the Syrian regime is stepping up its attacks by shelling villages and using pro-government militias for on-the-ground fighting, said Tabler. But Assad can only regain control of areas temporarily in a “whack-a-mole”-style resistance, he said.


Syrian mourners gather June 11 for the funeral of nine of the 13 people killed a day earlier in the town of Maaret al-Numan in the Idlib province. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

On the other side, support for the regime is coming mainly from the Iranians and Russians in terms of political allegiance and arms, said Tabler.

The danger to escalating fighting and a balancing out of militaries is that the regime will use paramilitary groups more and “sectarianize” the conflict, which would mean a deepening of civil war, said Wherey. “I’m not sure if the opposition can make real political or military gains against this; the end is nowhere in sight.”

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