A ferocious battle was taking place in Rastan between army defectors and loyalists to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Witnesses said the ranks of the rebels swelled when more soldiers defected from the attacking pro-Assad forces. Benefitting from the support of the local population, the defectors unexpectedly held their ground and inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers, forcing the army to use air power to bombard the town randomly and teach both defectors and civilians a lesson.
But six months after the outbreak of the uprising, it seems that Assad is the one who needs to learn some lessons. Brutality has succeeded in subduing dozens of the flashpoint Syrian cities and towns only as long as Assad keeps his tanks in the squares and his snipers on rooftops. When these are redeployed to quell the uprising elsewhere, protesters take to the streets again to demand Assad step down.
Syria has seemingly reached a stalemate between Assad's loyalists and those calling for his ouster. But the rebels have time on their side, especially given their tested determination and resilience.
Assad, for his part, has employed a two-pronged strategy: the unlimited use of violence coupled with a propaganda campaign aimed at scaring Syria's minorities and foreign powers of the consequences of his possible downfall.
With the decline of America's power in the region and with the potential for a power vacuum to prevail, many fear the future if Assad were to fall. The scenarios have varied between a civil war that might spill into Iraq and Lebanon, and a radical Islamist takeover. News reports are also buzzing with unverifiable stories that army defectors and civilian activists have been arming.
Syrian rebels fall into four general categories. One is composed of dissidents in exile who have no influence over the course of events but can help lobby world powers in favor of the uprising. The other three types of activist are inside Syria, and two of them have been instrumental in stirring the uprising.
Peaceful activists, organized into loosely connected Coordination Committees, have been the main engine of the uprising.
They organize protests and tape them, and run a sophisticated social media campaign. The probability of these people turning violent is slim.
Another group influencing events inside Syria is the army defectors, who have so far organized themselves into the Free Officers, the Free Syrian Army, and the Khaled Bin al-Walid Battalion in Homs and the Omar Ibn al-Khattab Battalion in Deir al-Zour. Estimated at more than 10,000, these soldiers have ambushed Assad's loyalists and engaged them in battles, though they often run out of ammunition and get decimated.
The last group is formed of intellectuals and opposition figures living in Syria who were active before the uprising began.
They have no influence with either the peaceful activists or the army defectors. A few of them have been co-opted by Assad and have been arguing that a civil war is inevitable, thus aggravating the fear of a post-Assad Syria. Many of them call for dialogue with Assad as the only way to end the strife.
More soldiers will probably defect, and some may join forces with tribal fighters and procure arms off the black market, but they will by no means be able to get their hands on enough firepower to make a dent in the official armed forces. If the Libya war tells us anything, it is that ragtag militias without foreign intervention cannot stop, let alone defeat, an organized army like the units still loyal to Assad.
Still, despite Assad's brutal upper hand, time is on the rebels’ side.
Last week, the government banned the import of any commodity with a tax that is higher than five percent to prevent the flow of hard currency out of Syria, leading experts to conclude that the volume of Syria's reserves is much smaller than the $18 billion Syria's Central Bank governor, Adib Mayyaleh, previously announced.
The minute Assad runs out of foreign currency, the Syrian pound will stop being worth the paper it is printed on. Hyperinflation will hit, and Assad will not be able to pay his fighters.
Unlike Libya's Moammar Qaddafi, who had an estimated $15 billion in cash in the vaults of his Central Bank during the fight for Tripoli, Assad's resources are meager, especially after Europe slapped sanctions on the country’s oil sector last week.
Assad is growing weaker by the hour. If Syrians continue protesting, there is no way he can keep his terror campaign going. There is no worldwide radical Alawite network to bolster the regime or protect the sect’s interests if Assad is ousted. There are no foreign troops to rally Syrians against. Assad is running out of cash and excuses. Sometime soon, he will be the commander of a minority that fears that a continuation of the battle will spell its end, and it will either force Assad to give up or it will give up on him.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai