Syria’s crisis: Into the meat-grinder

THE Syrian regime is sensing wind in its sails. Having snuffed out rebel strongholds one by one in a month-long offensive, its army stands poised to crush the most obstinate such redoubt, the Baba Amr district of Syria’s third-largest city, Homs. Elsewhere in Syria, loyal citizens have cheered their president, Bashar Assad, by voting on February 26th, by a heartwarming majority of 89.4%, to approve a new constitution that may keep him in power until 2028. Good news on the diplomatic front too: a club of regime enemies known as the Friends of Syria, which includes opposition parties, Arab diplomats and Western powers, failed at a much-hyped conclave in Tunisia to agree on how to counter the government onslaught.

Of course, things are not really quite so rosy for Mr Assad. After more than three weeks of rocket, mortar, tank and artillery fire that has killed hundreds of civilians in Baba Amr, including foreign journalists, his loyalists are having to attempt a ground assault to finish the job. The district, where an unknown number of the original 20,000 inhabitants have endured increasingly appalling conditions, will almost certainly fall and many more people will die. This is what has happened in the scores of towns and villages across the country where aggressive tactics and superior firepower have belatedly re-established state control.

Yet such victories have proved pyrrhic. In virtually every part of Syria dominated by Sunni Muslims, who make up three-quarters of the population, support for the regime has collapsed permanently. Only a heavy presence of combat troops in sandbagged emplacements, backed up by plainclothes security agents, can maintain loyalist dominance. Without them—and Mr Assad’s forces appear overstretched after many months of continuous killing—government control vanishes.

This is hardly surprising. The rebels are driven by fury and desperation. Throughout their nearly year-long uprising, at most a few dozen died per day, often in only one or two places at a time. But in recent weeks, according to the UN, the daily death toll has often exceeded 100, with the total number killed so far “well over” 7,500. The UN estimates that between 100,000 and 200,000 Syrians have fled their homes, with at least 25,000 now registered as refugees in neighbouring countries. The number of political prisoners may be in the tens of thousands. This rising toll of victims has not demoralised the opposition, but rather emboldened it.

As for the referendum, most observers found regime claims of a 57% turnout laughable. A Damascus resident reports one tactic for inflating voter numbers: bus passengers were stopped at one of the many army checkpoints now ringing the capital and asked to hand over ID cards. When the cards were returned after a few minutes’ wait the passengers were thanked for having “voted”.

Nor should Mr Assad take too much comfort from his enemies’ disarray. Rich Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have stopped hand-wringing. They now seem ready to channel large volumes of money and powerful guns to the Free Syrian Army, the opposition’s battered bands of defecting soldiers, who have so far been denied much of either.

Among Western countries, opposition to intervention in Syria is giving way to a sense that the grave humanitarian situation may make it inevitable. China, which has twice joined Russia to veto condemnation of Mr Assad at the UN, now says it may back a Security Council resolution demanding access for aid to stricken Syrian civilians. And even Russia is likely to support the regime only for as long as it retains the upper hand.

World News Today

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