Syria suffers series of embarrassing defections

Diplomats, analysts and even members of the opposition insist that Mr Assad’s
power base is under no direct threat. After arriving in Turkey, which has
become the base of the opposition Free Syrian Army, Gen. Sheikh said he
estimated 20,000 soldiers had defected from a total army strength of near

That figure is half the number claimed by the FSA’s founder, Col Riad
al-Assad, as having joined his group.

However, there are unmistakable signs of Mr Assad’s grip failing. Parts of
Homs province and the northern province of Idlib are clearly under rebel
control, insofar as they are under regular attack from the military, though
the opposition is unable to establish the sort of control exercised by
renegade cities in Libya last year.

His forces raided Aleppo University on Sunday night after a protest by
students there. The city, Syria’s second largest and most loyal, has so far
proved most immune to protest.

Amr al-Azm, a Syrian exile and academic in the United States, said Mr Assad’s
increasingly belligerent tone, despite occasional offers of amnesties such
as one on Sunday, meant a long-drawn out civil war was the most likely

“The regime is set on war and the opposition is arming up,” he said. “If
the Arabs want to avoid a total fracturing of Syria they have to intervene
either way: send troops in or let someone else do it.”

The Arab League is to meet on Saturday and Sunday to discuss the findings of
its peace monitoring mission to the country. It has so far ruled out seeking
United Nations support, but that might change, particularly after Sheikh
Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, called at the weekend for
Arab troops to be sent to intervene.

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, made an unusual appeal for
action by his own Security Council, which has so far been prevented from
taking a position by Syria’s strategic allies, Russia and China.

“The situation has reached an unacceptable point,” he said at an
energy summit in Abu Dhabi also attended by the Chinese prime minister, Wen
Jiabao. “I sincerely hope that the Security Council will handle this in
a sense of seriousness and gravity and in a coherent manner.”

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