Civil War Brews in Syria

The Assad regime has continued mowing down anti-regime protestors since the attention of the world shifted elsewhere.  On a day when 90 unarmed Syrians contracted a fatal case of crackdown, bringing the death toll over 3,500 to date, a group of army defectors ambushed Assad’s forces and killed a few dozen of the dictator’s henchmen.  From a report by the Associated Press:

The latest death toll was compiled by sources including British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Local Coordination Committees activist coalition and morgue officials.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the observatory, confirmed that 34 soldiers were killed in an ambush in Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising that began in mid-March, inspired by successful revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and later Libya.

Although activists say the protests have remained largely peaceful, with demonstrators calling for the regime’s downfall, an armed insurgency has developed in recent months targeting Assad’s military and security forces.

It looks like the battle spilled up against the Jordanian border, as chronicled by Reuters:

At least 40 Syrians were killed in fighting on Monday between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and insurgents in a town near the border with Jordan, local activists said, in the first case of major armed resistance to Assad in the region.

They said troops backed by armour killed 20 people — army defectors, insurgents and civilians — in an assault on Khirbet Ghazaleh in the Hauran Plain, and in fighting that ensued near the town. A similar number of troops were killed, they added.

The troops attacked Khirbet Ghazaleh, 20 km (12 miles) north of the border, on the main highway between Amman and Damascus, after army defectors attacked a security police bus at a highway intersection near the town, the activists said.

“Members of the (defectors’) brigade fought back when the army attacked and Bedouin from nearby villages also rushed to help Khirbet Ghazaleh,” said one of the activists, who gave his name as Abu Hussein.

King Abdullah of Jordan, clearly less than thrilled by the prospect of a civil war brewing on his border, became the first Arab leader to call on Bashar Assad to step down.  He made the call during a BBC interview:

“I would step down and make sure whoever comes behind me has the ability to change the status quo that we’re seeing,” King Abdullah stated in an exclusive interview with BBC World News television.

He said: “If Bashar [al-Assad] has the interest of his country [at heart] he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life.

King Abdullah added: “Whenever you exert violence on your own people, it is never going to end well.”

This did not sit well with Assad loyalists, who surrounded the Jordanian embassy and tore down its flag.  They’ll have a lot more flags to tear down soon, as the Arab League appears to be running out of patience with Assad’s bloodbath.  Reuters reports they’re already composing an obituary for the Assad regime:

The League, which has voted to suspend Syria’s membership from Wednesday, asked Syrian opposition groups to draw up their plans for a transition of power, as a prelude to a wider gathering on Syria’s future planned by the Cairo-based body.

“The Arab League will announce soon a date for a conference to include many of the Syrian opposition groups to discuss the ways and time needed to move to a transitional period,” Abdel Basset Sedah, of the opposition Syrian National Council’s executive office, told Reuters after meeting League officials.

After months of hesitation, the League decided on Saturday to discipline Syria for pursuing a violent crackdown on dissent instead of implementing an Arab peace initiative. It has stopped short of calling for Assad’s departure or proposing any Libya-style foreign military intervention in Syria.

It sounds like Assad won’t be able to count on much help from his old friends in Turkey:

Syria’s leadership was offered a last chance to stop its violent repression of anti-government protests but rejected it, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Tuesday.

“The Syrian regime does not want to listen to the demands of its people,” Davutoglu told a news conference in the Moroccan capital. “Unfortunately, it still shoots its own people.”

“We have given a last opportunity to the Syrian regime but they didn’t want to seize it,” Davutoglu said. “We cannot afford to sit idle.”

Turkey wants “sanctions with an impact that spares harm to the Syrian people,” he said through an interpreter.

Well, at least Assad can always rely on his patrons in Iran, widely accused of providing storm troopers from their al-Quds Force to help crack the skulls of Syrian dissidents… can’t he?  Maybe not.  The Sydney Morning Herald says they’ve refrained from public criticism of Assad, but have also been quietly (and unsuccessfully) making overtures to the Syrian opposition:

Several opposition sources have confirmed that Iran opened a channel to a ”moderate” opposition group about a month ago.

Officials met Haytham Manna, an activist from the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, and other members of the group. The body is strongly opposed to foreign intervention and is likely to be seen as more acceptable to Iran than the largest opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which has argued for ”international protection” for civilians.

”Iran used Haytham Manna to prepare for an opposition conference,” one opposition source said. But the attempt failed as ”no one trusted Iran.”

 About the only friends Bashar Assad has left in the world are Russia and China, who have acted to block U.N. condemnation of his grisly activities.  Russia has also been trying to convince the Syrian opposition to sit down and talk with the government, which would be a lot easier to do if the opposition didn’t have good reason to suspect their chairs would be equipped with shackles and high-tension wires. 

If Dr. Assad doesn’t take King Abdullah’s advice and perhaps open a nice little optometry practice in Moscow, a full-blown civil war could be in the offering.  Late Tuesday evening, there were reports that a Syrian air force base on the outskirts of Damascus came under attack from the “Free Syrian Army,” who were armed with machine guns and shoulder-fired rockets.  Syria is becoming something other than a shooting gallery full of soft targets for Assad’s thug regime.

Update: Syria was formally suspended from the Arab League on Wednesday afternoon.