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Syrian conflict enters Lebanon phase

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8 May 2012 15:37

Syria appears to be entering a new phase in its insurgency. And this one is taking the uprising further away from a simple question of political reform and toward what is looking increasingly like the early stages of a Lebanese-style civil war. 

All the ingredients are there: sectarian fault-lines that have been papered over for decades and now define the protagonists, regional powers who see in Syria a stage on which their leadership credentials can be tested, faltering regional and now international attempts to broker peace, and a trajectory of violence that has already masked what the original uprising was all about.

There are additional complications and differences. Some Sunni jihadists see Syria as a way of regaining a sense of purpose and utilising their skills. And Russia sees in Syria a test case for its continued existence as a global power – Moscow felt cheated by the Libya experience and is not going to repeat it in Syria. In contrast to the Lebanese experience though, in the capital Damascus life goes on in a more or less normal fashion.

The insurgency may have lost the moral high ground atop which it sat. The earliest stages of the Syrian uprising were largely about peaceful demonstrations, where the bastardy of the regime's security forces was on display for the world to see. But as peaceful demonstrations have given way to fighting, the opposition has overestimated its own capabilities and its support from the broader Syrian population, which is yet to be convinced that the Government is going to fall. The regime has been able to fix and destroy the rebels in detail.

Now the next stage has commenced. Eschewing direct military confrontation with the Syrian military, the insurgents have resorted to car bombs and suicide bombings, tactics designed to highlight the inability of the Assad regime to provide security to the population. 

But if the point of the insurgency is to win over the majority of Syrians, then the insurgents are not having much luck. The Sunni insurgency lacks widespread support inside the two major cities, conducts bombings which inevitably incur civilian casualties, has been criticised by Human Rights Watch for carrying out atrocities and has a fractured leadership of long-term exiles. It has a long way to go before it can convince Syrians that it is a better alternative to the devil they know. 

Bombing campaigns and attacks against the security forces have worked well against occupation forces in other conflicts, as they raise the cost of continuing the mission until political demands force a negotiated solution and the withdrawal of the occupiers. 

But when the 'occupiers' are indigenous security forces led by a religious minority whose existence depends on military success and retaining the acquiescence of the silent majority, then the insurgents' latest tactics may prove counterproductive. These tactics will harden the regime's resolve, and its control of the media means the population may increasingly see the insurgents as the ones to blame for the killings.      

We are some way from any 'tipping point' on Syria, but the longer this goes on, the harder it is going to be to paper over the sectarian cracks again.

Photo by Flickr user FreedomHouse.

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