The chaos in Syria, Israel’s northern nemesis and a major geopolitical actor in the Middle East, has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. The situation is rapidly approaching that of an outright civil war, and in such an eventuality, it is unclear who would replace the Assad regime, if it can be pushed from power at all. Although nature of the Syrian opposition movement is deeply uncertain, recent reports have demonstrated that the Muslim Brotherhood is definitely within its ranks.
Over the last several weeks, largely nonviolent protests against the ruling regime of Bashar al-Assad have been brutally put down by professional troops and security forces, with heavy casualties to civilians. Current estimates put the number of civilian dead at approximately 1,100, though that number is impossible to verify. As if that were not bad enough, on Monday, news broke that Syrian military forces were ambushed while responding to a call for help from a town where fighting had broken out. Again, the death toll cannot be verified, but state-run media reports 120 soldiers were killed. The government has vowed to respond with force to this attack, which, if true, represents the first major attack on Syrian forces by the protest movement. Whether or not the government’s death toll is accurate, the fact that there was fighting in the town of Jisr al-Shoghour has been confirmed by anti-regime activists and residents of the town. Who is responsible is unknown, but none of the possible answers are reassuring.
According to residents of the town, the troops were sent to Jisr al-Shoghour after fighting broke out among units of the security forces. Defections of officers and men into rebel units have also been reported — including some in other nearby towns. While it is important to stress that none of this can be confirmed, if the reports are accurate, it would appear that at least some units of the Syrian military have broken away from the government. Having reportedly equipped themselves with heavy weapons from local military armories, they then wiped out the military reinforcements sent to put an end to their insurrection.
This is a familiar story. It was only several months ago that a popular uprising in the Libyan city of Benghazi quickly drew over several units of Muammar Gaddafi’s armed forces. A Libyan rebel government, with a military composed of defectors and deserters from Gaddafi’s forces, quickly formed, and has been fighting a civil war against Gaddafi for several months. The rebels are now backed by the air and naval forces of the NATO alliance. The uprising against Gaddafi was triggered when security forces loyal to the regime used violence to put down peaceful protests. The comparisons to the deteriorating situation in Syria are strong indeed.
Much like the situation in Libya, there is uncertainty over the goals and motives — even identity — of those who would stand against the Assad regime in a civil war. Syria has been ruled by the Ba’ath Party, which itself is headed by the Assad family, for 40 years. No opposition has been permitted, no democratic movements allowed. Who would speak for Syria’s rebels?
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