Syria conflict descends into 'war of attrition'

By Elizabeth A. Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Aug. 8 2011 1:10 p.m. MDT

In this image made from amateur video released by Ugarit News and accessed via The Associated Press Television News on Monday, Aug. 8, 2011, shows members of the Syrian military standing near the body of man in the northern Syrian province of Idlib Sunday Aug. 7, 2011.

Ugarit News via APTN) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CANNOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT, DATE, LOCATION OR AUTHENTICITY OF THIS MATERIAL, Associated Press

BEIRUT — Despite five months of blistering attacks on dissent, the Syrian regime has yet to score a decisive victory against a pro-democracy uprising determined to bring down the country's brutal dictatorship.

President Bashar Assad still has the military muscle to level pockets of resistance, but the conflict has robbed him of almost all international support.

Even Saudi Arabia this week called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria, the first of several Arab nations to join the growing chorus against Assad.

The Syrian leader is being watched carefully at home and abroad to see how long his iron regime — which is still strong but wobbling — will continue to use tanks, snipers and security forces on hundreds of thousands of fervent, overwhelmingly young protesters who keep coming back for more.

"Syria is not burying the revolution," said Nabil Bou Monsef, a senior analyst at the Arabic-language An-Nahar newspaper. "Protests are resuming everywhere, even in areas that were subject to crackdowns."

He added: "It is difficult for one of the sides to win. Syria has entered a war of attrition between the regime and the opposition."

There is little to stop Assad from calling upon the scorched-earth tactics that have kept his family in power for more than 40 years. A longtime pariah, Syria grew accustomed to shrugging off the world's reproach long before the regime started shooting unarmed protesters five months ago.

A military intervention has been all but ruled out, given the quagmire in Libya and the lack of any strong opposition leader in Syria to rally behind. The U.S. and other nations have little power to threaten further isolation or economic punishment of Assad's pro-Iranian regime — unlike in Egypt, where President Barack Obama was able to help usher longtime ally Hosni Mubarak out of power.

International sanctions, some of which target Assad personally, have failed to persuade him to ease his crackdown. There had been hopes, since dashed, that European Union sanctions would prove a humiliating personal blow to Assad, a 45-year-old eye doctor who trained in Britain.

Until the uprising began, Assad had cultivated an image as a modern leader in a region dominated by aging dictators. He was seen around Damascus with his glamorous wife, Asma, who grew up in London and was the subject of a glowing profile in Vogue just before the protests erupted. The couple's three small children added to their luster as youthful and energetic.

But the relentless military assaults on rebellious towns have only grown more deadly. The latest wave of bloodshed started a week ago, on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan, when tanks and snipers laid siege to Hama, a city in central Syria that had largely freed itself from government control earlier this year.

Residents were left cowering in their homes, too terrified to peek through the windows. The city is haunted by memories of the regime's tactics: In 1982, Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez, ordered the military to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement there, sealing off the city in an assault that killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people.

Since the start of Ramadan, more than 300 people have been killed in cities including Hama and Deir el-Zour, an oil-rich but largely impoverished region known for its well-armed clans and tribes whose ties extend across eastern Syria and into Iraq.

Syria has blocked nearly all outside witnesses to the carnage by banning foreign media and restricting local coverage that strays from the party line, which states the regime is fighting thugs and religious extremists who are acting out a foreign conspiracy.

Besides the secretly recorded videos that leak of Syria every day and accounts by witnesses who whisper down telephone lines, Assad has managed to keep the eyes of the world off his bloodied nation.

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