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Syria to continue 'war of attrition': analysts

BEIRUT -- The Syrian regime will persist with its strategy of bombing into submission pockets of rebel resistance as it remains convinced it alone holds the key to resolving a crisis now entering a second year, analysts say.

“The regime believes that the international community after a while will realize that it cannot be undone, that the pressure will relent and that the outside will reengage,” said Peter Harling, an expert on Syria with the International Crisis Group.

“When we throw envoys at them without a clear mandate, it further convinces them that they are doing the right thing,” he added, referring to former U.N. chief Kofi Annan's weekend mission to Damascus aimed at pressuring President Bashar al-Assad to halt his bloody crackdown on dissent.

Experts say, however, that while Assad may have the military might to crush rebel strongholds, as seen in Homs and Idlib in the past two weeks, his regime is nonetheless doomed and waging a losing battle.

“It's a game of whack a mole,” said Harling, referring to Assad's bid to root out armed insurgents.

“The regime is waging an attrition war. It needs to maintain the fiction of winning military victories, because that's important to its power base, but at the same time it doesn't expect its struggle to end quickly.”

Key factors playing in Assad's favor are Russia's steadfast support, a seemingly paralyzed international community and a fragmented opposition that has so far failed to offer a viable alternative to the regime.

“International pressure on the regime has eased,” said Fabrice Balanche, director of the France-based Gremmo research center. “There is a willingness to calm things down because nothing can be done as long as Russia stands in the way.

“The Russians have said that any resolution to the Syrian crisis goes through them.”

Russia, a major weapons supplier to Damascus, along with China has vigorously blocked efforts at the U.N. Security Council to censure Syria for the violence which according to U.N. figures has left more than 8,000 people dead.

In the meantime, analysts warn, the country appears slowly but surely headed toward a full-blown civil war amid sharpening sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites and growing calls to arm a nascent insurgency.

Syria's population of 23 million is predominantly Sunni Muslim while the ruling Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, form the minority.

Washington and its Western allies have said they are opposed to arming the rebels, but regional Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar, have increasingly spoken in favor of such a step.

“If the Saudis and Qataris want to really spend some money, they can change the balance of power,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“But if the regime were to be destroyed, the humanitarian crisis could spike,” he added. “You don't end the killing, you just increase the killing and this is what happened in Iraq.

“You break it, you own it — and everybody knows that and that's why nobody wants to go in. Saudi Arabia and Turkey realize it's a potential Vietnam for them.”

Analysts say that given the current diplomatic stalemate, Damascus feels empowered to push ahead with its strategy to crush rebel strongholds at any cost, even if in the long run it cannot win.

“The situation is extremely polarized and makes it possible for the regime to forge ahead along the same course of action,” Harling said.

“The problem is I don't think the regime's strategy works given their relationship with their own society,” he added.

“They have alienated millions within their own territory ... and the regime is doing nothing to repair that relationship.

“Without repairing it, all it will do is create the conditions for a civil war.”

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