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Assad forces overwhelm main dissident stronghold

Rebel troops in ‘tactical withdrawal’; Army to turn its focus north

sana/associated press

The retreat was a significant victory for President Bashar Assad as international pressure grows.

BEIRUT - The Syrian Army overwhelmed the main rebel stronghold in the embattled city of Homs on yesterday, setting the stage for its elite soldiers to turn their attention - and superior firepower - to other insurgent redoubts farther north, despite the increasing international pressure for a cease-fire and humanitarian access.

In announcing their “tactical withdrawal’’ from the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs after enduring a pounding by artillery, tank, and sniper fire for nearly a month, the rebel Revolutionary Brigades of Baba Amr said in statement that they were heavily outgunned and unable to justify keeping thousands of civilians marooned under dire conditions. In a quarter where most buildings are pockmarked by shell blasts, residents lacked food, medicine, water, and electricity and were cut off from the outside world.

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The retreat was a significant victory for President Bashar Assad, as his troops hurry to put down an armed insurgency before international pressure grows too great, or the cohesion of the armed forces breaks down, under the relentless pressure of a nearly year-old uprising. The Syrian government lacks sufficient elite troops to subdue all rebellious cities at once, so its strategy has been to regain control of one hotspot at a time while pushing its own proposals for limited political change.

But it remains a race against exhaustion, defections, and diminished resources.

With the apparent victory in Homs, the Syrian military is expected to step up its assault on Hama, farther north, and beyond that try to tame Idlib Province, where many towns and large swaths of the countryside have declared themselves government-free zones.

Yet international demands for a cease-fire are intensifying almost daily. Even Russia and China, which have repeatedly blocked international action on Syria, voted yesterday for a UN Security Council statement demanding immediate humanitarian access. In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council also called on the government to permit humanitarian aid into besieged areas.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said the Syrian government granted it permission to enter Baba Amr. Despite that, opposition supporters harbored a gnawing fear about possible reprisals in Homs, with gunfire still crackling there and sketchy reports of raids and arrests emerging. Activists said that they had been planning their retreat for days, with scores of residents led to safety before the withdrawal was announced.

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Whether the military can maintain momentum, and for how long, remains an unknown variable as the rebels try to regroup. What is certain is that the Assad family has long maintained a firm grip on the military.

“For 40 years this army was structured and shaped for the worst-case scenario, which is happening today, and that is why it is holding,’’ said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese army general and military analyst.

There is no straightforward yes or no answer about the military’s long-term viability; indeed its opaque nature means that assessing even basic statistics such as the number of active-duty soldiers involves some guesswork.

But from the outset of the uprising last March, the forces buttressing Assad’s rule enjoyed several advantages.

First, as the rebels and residents in Baba Amr learned through wrenching experience, the government commands overwhelming firepower, including tanks, heavy artillery and, if needed, helicopter gunships or warplanes.

Second, the officer corps, the intelligence services and the most elite units - including the Republican Guard and the Fourth Division commanded by the president’s brother Maher - are staffed mainly by Alawites, the same minority sect as the president. The ruling family has convinced them that they face annihilation if they fail to crush the uprising.

Third, in a police state such as Syria, military officers are monitored constantly, and even in villages claimed by the opposition, informants help the secret police track events.

In comparison, the opposition deploys only light weapons. It has no organized command-and-control structure, although the Syrian National Council announced yesterday that it was forming one. But thus far the military opposition centered on the Free Syrian Army in Turkey suffers from personal bickering much like the political opposition.

The insurgents are highly motivated, however, and over time demographics tip in their favor. Alawites constitute about 12 percent of the 23 million Syrians. Sunni Muslims, the opposition’s backbone, make up about 75 percent of the population.

But it would take perhaps a year or more for those numbers to have an effect, analysts said, so any quicker change in fortunes requires a wild card.

Although both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have voiced support for arming the opposition, there is no sign that they have followed through, nor that bigger weapons are flowing.

In Iraq, for example, when Iran and Syria armed the insurgents, there was an upsurge in armor-piercing explosive devices and attacks on higher value targets.

On the government side in Syria, no cracks have emerged, analysts note, nor has the steady drumbeat of soldier burials in Alawite villages prompted any audible grumbling.

Nearly a year after the uprising started, Syria is marked by the “cohesion of the elites,’’ James R. Clapper, the director of US intelligence, told the Senate Armed Forces Committee earlier this month.

“Short of a coup or something like that, Assad will hang in there and continue to do as he’s done,’’ Clapper said.

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