U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the civil war in Syria is “accelerating” as President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on the country weakens and Russia rejoins talks on its longtime ally’s future.
Other U.S. officials also yesterday said the rebellion that began in March 2011 may be approaching a tipping point. They cautioned that Assad’s forces remain strong and retain the ability to attack rebel strongholds from the air, albeit at a rising cost.
The rebel Free Syrian Army has gained significant ground in Damascus suburbs in recent weeks as it acquired more effective weapons, and its advances have sparked rapid rises in the prices of food, fuel, medicine and other staples in the Syrian capital, the U.S. officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence reports.
“I think Assad’s fall is ripe,” Burhan Ghalioun, a senior member of the rebel National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, said in a telephone interview from Paris. “His end is near and clear. The rebels are advancing on the ground; they have better training and weapons.”
More than 80 Syrians, including 65 civilians, were killed in fighting across the country yesterday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement today. Assad’s troops have been shelling suburbs of Damascus, Aleppo and Hama since late yesterday, according to the U.K.- based group.
In a renewed effort to find a diplomatic solution, Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov joined United Nations Special Envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi in Dublin in a hastily arranged meeting yesterday that raised hopes the U.S. and Russia might be closer to a compromise on Syria.
Russia, a longtime backer of Assad and his late father, has stymied U.S. efforts to increase international pressure on Assad’s regime.
“The Russians are clearly moving toward a situation where even they understand the desperation, and they understand that Assad is rapidly falling and probably is not capable of sustaining himself,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, a Washington policy group.
Clinton said on Dec. 5 the newly constituted Syrian opposition coalition is moving closer to winning U.S. support, hinting at possible recognition for the group. The coalition already has won recognition from the European Union and Gulf Arab countries.
The opposition, a loosely defined coalition of secular and Islamist forces, contains a growing number of extremists from Iraq and other countries, according to U.S. officials.
The State Department is moving to designate one Syrian rebel group as a foreign terrorist organization because of evidence it has ties to al-Qaeda, said two U.S. officials who described the move on the condition of anonymity because it hasn’t happened yet. Members of the group, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Support Front, have participated in some recent successful attacks on government forces.
Rebel fighters are increasingly targeting Syria’s infrastructure. They have seized a majority of the oil fields in the energy-rich Deir el-Zour governorate, and Assad’s forces now only control five oil fields, all west of the city of Deir el-Zour, the Austin, Texas-based geopolitical consulting firm Stratfor said in a report yesterday. The remaining fields are “at risk of falling into rebel hands,” Stratfor said.
Assad’s forces “are losing resources and are not capable of refreshing themselves,” Miller said. The rebels have “been adding territory, resources, more sophisticated weaponry, experience. They’re getting much better at what they’re doing.”
Opposition forces have acquired and learned to use heavy machine guns and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, according to a U.S. Defense Department official who follows Syria closely. Rebels shot down a Syrian Mi-17 helicopter with shoulder-fired missile on Nov. 27.
Assad’s government has responded by concentrating its military forces to defend the capital and safeguard a passageway to the Mediterranean coastal stronghold of the Alawite minority sect of Shiite Islam that’s ruled the country since 1970. U.S. officials also say they have seen signs the government may be preparing to use chemical weapons or nerve agents in a last stand against rebels.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta yesterday said U.S. intelligence reporting “raises serious concerns” about possible use of chemical weapons, a step President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have warned would provoke an international response.
Still, such a response would not be simple. Syria still has respectable air defenses, and bombing as many as 75 sites that the U.S. officials said may harbor weapons of mass destruction would risk killing civilians.
Sending ground forces into the country to secure chemical and other weapons before they fall into the hands of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, a Syrian ally, or opposition forces allied with al-Qaeda, would be even costlier and would risk a backlash in an Arab and Islamic world already rocked by the Arab Spring revolts.