BEIRUT— The killing in Syria is accelerating with a surge in fighting across the war-torn country between government forces and rebels. Opposition activists say the death toll in the past three weeks has been the highest since the uprising started against President Bashar al-Assad almost three years ago.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based pro-opposition monitoring group with a network of informants on the ground, 4,959 people died in Syria in the three-week period between January 22 and February 12.
The sharp rise in fighting has come against the backdrop of the second round of peace talks in Geneva, which ended inconclusively on February 14 with the warring sides as far apart as when they started, but activists and analysts say the surge in violence can’t only be blamed on the acrimonious negotiations. Both sides appear still to believe they can win on the battlefield and disillusionment has not set in yet among the combatants, a key factor in civil wars ending and negotiated settlements being reached.
“The average length of civil wars since 1945 has been about 10 years,” according to Barbara Walters, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego, who maintains a blog on political violence. “This suggests that the civil war in Syria is in its early stages, and not in the later stages.”
Many Syrian refugees and opposition activists are increasingly expressing their fatigue with the fighting and hardship they are enduring. “All I care about is that there will be peace and no more bombardments and we can go back to our normal life where I can have my children living normally. I have no relationship to politics whatsoever. I don’t care if Bashar stays or not, all I want is the peace,” said 28-year-old Ahmed, who fled a few months ago along with his family from the Syrian city of Homs to northern Lebanon.
Both sides see victory on the horizon
But while civilians and activists are exhausted the resolve of most fighters on either side doesn’t seem to be close to being worn down.
Speaking in a makeshift medical clinic in the Lebanese town of Arsal on the border with Syria, a wounded wispy-bearded Islamist fighter, Alain, says there can be no end to the brutal conflict until the rebels have succeeded in ousting President Assad. “All of us think we can win because we are in the right,” he said.
The 24-year-old, whose right leg was damaged in an airstrike and is now pinned together, adds: “Bashar and his soldiers may have more weapons than us but Allah supports us, so we will win, sooner or later.”
In adjoining rooms in the clinic more than a dozen rebels drawn from different factions, moderate and Islamist, echoed Alain, saying there can be no defeat or any suing for peace or compromise in the struggle to topple the Syrian President. They all said when sufficiently recovered, they plan to trek across the mountains back into Syria to fight again.
“You can only die once,” one of the fighters remarked defiantly.
The wounded insurgents admitted the rebel infighting that erupted earlier this year in northern Syria and has continued since then has taken its toll on morale among their ranks but they said there could be no going back now in their efforts to rid Syria of President Assad. Some said they have no alternative: defeat would mean death for them.
Likewise analysts say government soldiers appear ready to fight on. And if anything their morale may be higher entering the fourth year of the war than it was a few months ago, thanks to a series of military gains on the battlefield by the government starting last June with the retaking of the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border.
According to Vitaly Naumkin, president of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic and Political studies and a columnist for the website Al Monitor, “the fact that the Syrian army and security forces have shown surprising cohesion and only isolated individuals have deserted so far, with no instances of entire units going over to the rebel side, is seen in Russia as evidence of the strength of the regime’s position.”
Military analyst Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, agrees that the lack of unit defections suggests that determination is holding up in government ranks. He argues dynamics within the Syrian military started changing last summer. Several factors made a difference, he says, including “the injection of between 30,000 to 50,000 Syrian national defense militiamen”, locally based volunteers who have become better organized over time.
The biggest difference, though, has come with the assistance provided by Hezbollah, Lebanon’s militant Shiite movement that has backed longtime ally President Assad. Nerguizian estimates there may be as many as 8,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria and they have helped boost the confidence of government soldiers.
“What we are seeing is young veterans, thirty-year-olds, from Hezbollah playing the role of non-commissioned officers, taking the lead, taking Syrian squads under their command, helping them on combined operations without loss of morale,” said Nerguizian.