Syria's Bloody Rebellion Hits One Year Anniversary

PHOTO: Aida cries as she recovers from severe injuries after the Syrian Army shelled her house in Idlib, north Syria.Rodrigo Abd/AP Photo
Aida cries as she recovers from severe injuries after the Syrian Army shelled her house in Idlib, north Syria.

One year ago, crowds gathered in Syria's southern city of Daraa to protest the arrest and alleged torture of children who had written on a school wall, "the people want the downfall of the regime."

It is unclear whether the children were simply repeating the Arab Spring's most famous chant, or whether they genuinely hoped to topple the four decade-long Assad family regime as others had seen done in Tunisia and Egypt.

The Daraa protests sparked the uprising that has lasted longer than any other in the Arab Spring, claiming more than 8,000 lives and displacing 230,000 people, according to the United Nations.

A year on, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad maintains the upper hand and there's little sign so far that it is losing grip. Analysts say that could change quickly with defections from the top echelons of the key ministries in the military and security apparatus that have stayed loyal to the regime. However, as the conflict drags on, Assad is weakened and support for the opposition -- despite its disunity -- grows.

Assad is "smashing the opposition," said Syria analyst Joshua Landis at the University of Oklahoma, before adding that recent gains may just be "a pyrrhic victory."

"[Assad is] going to have a temporary victory here as he puts the fear of god in people and looks like a winner," Landis said. "But it's going to mobilize the hatred. Syria's boiling."

The growing number of soldiers defecting to the woefully ill-equipped Free Syrian Army is still just a small fraction of the overall forces, and a vast majority of those defecting are conscripts. The FSA is believed to have at most 20,000 fighters -- mostly civilians -- against an Assad force that the U.S. believes is around 330,000.

At every turn, the FSA is forced to retreat when regime forces launch a crackdown, seen most recently in the restive cities of Homs and Idlib that have now been subdued. "How can AK-47s stop a tank?" is a question asked repeatedly by FSA fighters pleading for external support.

By all accounts, the political opposition is still a fractured mess, the Syrian National Council failing to pull together and present a unified front, as it has been urged to by its supporters in the international community.

"There is no council, it's an illusion," said Kamal al-Labwani, a prominent SNC member who quit this week.

Waiting for Defections from Assad Regime

As the death toll mounts, all eyes are on the country's top leadership, straining to detect any cracks in the ranks dominated by Assad's fellow Alawites, a sect of Shia Islam. If one or several were to defect, many believe, it could spell the end of the regime.

"We're waiting for the cascade," says Landis. "There's still the hope a tipping point is going to come. But that hasn't happened and we can't count on it. I don't think it will happen."

Meanwhile, the FSA -- comprised almost entirely of Sunni Muslims -- is getting bigger by the day. The Pentagon says they've doubled the use of improvised explosive devices in the past few months, which could allow them to eventually seal off parts of the country like their fellow rebels did in eastern Libya against Moammar Gadhafi.

International economic sanctions continue to hit hard, with the Syrian pound dropping precipitously against the dollar in the past few months. In the capital Damascus, residents say the electricity goes off every day for six hours, food prices have double, and there are gas shortages and long lines.

"It feels like this will never end," a Damascus resident e-mailed ABC News. "Now there are two armed sides with lots of blood and the regime will not give up. The only way is through negotiations which have failed to even start."

A full-blown armed insurgency just shy of a civil war has taken the place of last spring's peaceful protests. And increasingly, the conflict is being framed in a Sunni versus Shiite lens similar to Iraq's that has already had knock-on effects felt in Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.

"I don't think we are yet in a civil war," says Damascus-based opposition activist Louay Hussein. "But we might be heading toward a civil war because some of arms and the gunmen have no political platform."

Hussein believes that at the end of the day, dialogue between Assad and the opposition will prevail, hoping that former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan will succeed in his diplomatic mission.

But how and when the crisis will reach that stage is anyone's guess.

"These battles go on for decades," says Landis. "They don't happen in a year and [the regime's] not going to give up."

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