The sand is running out of the hourglass for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday. Her words speak to the recent intensification of the standoff between Western powers and the Syrian regime. On both sides of the conflict, words and deeds became stronger than ever this weekend.
Clinton was in Tokyo when she condemned the brutal violence in Syria, where a popular uprising against Assad began in March of last year. Opposition fighters have coalesced to form the Free Syrian Army, a lightly armed and loosely organized paramilitary that has struggled against Assad's formidable forces for 16 months.
The conflict has claimed at least 14,000 lives so far, and violence is ongoing.
The sooner there can be an end to the violence and a beginning of a political transition process, not only will fewer people die, but there is a chance to save the Syrian state from a catastrophic assault that would be very dangerous not only to Syria but to the region, said Clinton, according to CBS News and the Associated Press.
Her statement followed an admission of defeat by Kofi Annan, the Arab League's and the United Nations' joint special envoy for Syria. His six-point peace plan, agreed to by the Syrian regime and opposition representatives in March, included a cease-fire that was immediately broken.
On Saturday, after three months of steadily increasing violence -- June has been called the bloodiest month since the uprising began -- Annan admitted his peace plan had failed. He visited Damascus on Sunday for more talks with Assad.
The Syrian president himself also lamented the failure of the peace plan, laying some of the blame on foreign intervention.
We know that [Annan] is coming up against countless obstacles, but his plan should not be allowed to fail -- it is a very good plan, Assad said in an interview aired Sunday by Das Erste, a German television channel. The biggest obstacle is that many countries do not even want this plan to succeed, so they offer political support and continue to provide the terrorists in Syria with arms and money.
On June 26, Assad for the first time acknowledged that he was in a real state of war with the opposition, which he refers to as a collection of armed terrorist groups, as reported by Reuters.
On Saturday, Syrian armed forces kicked off a round of large-scale war games, simulating defense moves against a possible intervention by foreign powers.
As part of the exercises, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported: [A]nti-submarine vessels in cooperation with the navy helicopters searched for proposed enemy submarines and destroyed them. The coastal artillery also took part in the military exercises against vessels offshore, while the Syrian frogmen commandos and other forces performed marine landing and airdrop to storm and free any given site from enemies.
With both sides bristling, the situation looks dire. But for the opposition, there are some signs of hope. Loyalty within Assad's ranks seems to be waning. On June 2, a group of 85 army members fled to neighboring Turkey with their families, according to Turkey's Andolou news agency.
And Friday saw the defection of the highest-ranking military official to desert the regime so far: Manaf Tlas, a longtime friend of Assad and a commander in the Republican Guard. Tlas is a Sunni Muslim, as is most of the Syrian population. For the Assad regime -- primarily consisting of Alawites, a minority religious sect -- Tlas' presence had conferred some small semblance of legitimacy for decades. Now, that link is gone.
Meanwhile, international sanctions are biting, and the economy is suffering high levels of inflation, further weakening Assad's ability to maintain power. In this environment, the rebels have gained control over significant parcels of land. One U.N. expert said the opposition now controls about 40 percent of Syria's populated areas in the West, according to the Economist.
Rebel fighters are desperate for increased foreign assistance, but Western powers have resisted military intervention. The U.S. administration supplies only nonlethal aid, although there are reports of covert CIA operations in southern Turkey that are helping other governments to funnel weapons into Syria.
Countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia are arming the rebels, but they have been hard-pressed to find international support. U.N. resolutions against Assad have been mired because of opposition by China and Russia, with both countries exercising their Security Council vetoes to forestall strong intervention.
No Western country is willing to take unilateral military action against the Assad regime. Critics of such action point out the Syrian rebellion is too fractured to be entrusted with heavier weaponry. There are concerns that arms might fall into the hands of Al Nusra, a jihadist group that has taken up the rebels' cause and may be linked to al Qaeda.
Furthermore, analysts fear that an empowered opposition movement -- consisting mostly of Sunnis -- might endanger the rights of minority groups in Syria, including Shias, Alawites, Kurds, and Christians.
Even Syrians themselves disagree on how best to end the conflict. The Syrian National Council, or SNC, a self-proclaimed government-in-exile based in Istanbul, is working to lay a framework for a new Syrian government. Progress is slow, as the group is plagued by infighting. Another organization called the Syrian Revolution General Commission, or SRGC, which works closely with militias in Syria, refuses to cooperate with the SNC due to its perceived inefficacy.
A July 1 meeting in Cairo, during which rebel factions were meant to come together and agree on a plan to move forward, ended in failure when representatives of the Free Syrian Army refused to attend, and the SRGC representatives left early to protest against what they saw as half-measures. A group of Kurds also walked out of the meeting, demanding greater recognition of their rights.
As outside forces and Syrian activist organizations continue to debate over the proper course of action in war-torn Syria, the rebel groups inside the country continue to fight. There is much to be said for the resilience of the opposition, which, despite thousands dead and hundreds of thousands more displaced or in exile, has shown no sign of backing down after 16 bloody months.
As Assad faces more and more diplomatic isolation, rebels hope that his iron-fisted grasp on power will soon loosen. Those with the closest knowledge of Assad's actions and crimes are moving away, Clinton said on Sunday. We think that's a very promising development. It also raises questions for those remaining in Damascus, who are still supporting this regime.