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Damascus Dragged Into Syrian War With Latest Wave Of Bombings


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

We're going to step back now and look at the military balance in Syria. It's one day after the capital, Damascus, was hit with the deadliest bombings since the revolt began nearly two years ago. More than 80 people were killed, over 200 were wounded. The attacks were the most sustained challenge yet to the home base of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Also, rebels have scored a string of victories in the northern part of Syria. NPR's Deborah Amos has this story on how the conflict is evolving.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: As ambulances raced through Damascus, the residents of the capital felt the force of a conflict that's been fought everywhere else but downtown Damascus. And civilians are bearing the brunt of the battle as rebels and the regime dial up the brutality. Syrian state media calls car bombs terror weapons. But the Syrian army fires ballistic missiles that level apartment blocks, targeting civilians in rebel-held towns, says military analyst Jeffrey White.

JEFFREY WHITE: We see a couple of launches almost every day. And these are just basic terror weapons. They have, you know, no practical military value in this war against the rebel forces.

AMOS: The fighting has become more intense, says White, as heavier weapons are introduced. The new firepower for the rebels comes from sophisticated weapons seized from Syrian army bases. But recently, the more intriguing additions, says White, are portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons not found in the Syrian arsenal, Chinese and European made. These weapons have recently shown up in rebel battle videos and make a qualitative difference, says White.

WHITE: It's not the silver bullet or the magic gun or whatever that's going to bring down the regime, but these weapons are ideal for the rebel forces. They're light. And it gives them additional means, let's say, to attack the regime's armor and to attack the regime's strong points.

AMOS: He is convinced momentum is with the rebels, especially in the north, where he expects the besieged city of Aleppo to fall soon. But even so, says Yezid Sayigh at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Aleppo in rebel hands is not the end of the war. The city will not become Syria's Benghazi, he says, referring to the rebel capital that launched Libya's successful revolution. Syria's rebels remain disorganized, lacking command and control. And he says the regime can continue to pound Aleppo's population with ballistic missiles and artillery.

YEZID SAYIGH: So the fall of Aleppo will be significant in morale terms. But in operational military terms, what it will do, I think, is cement a very broad stalemate between those northern regions and the rest of the country held by the government.

AMOS: A long-term stalemate is dangerous for Syria's neighbors. There's already a dramatic rise in refugees. This week, a battle captured on a rebel video added new tensions with neighboring Lebanon. The rebels and Syrian opposition leaders charged that members of Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese militia, crossed into Syria to fight alongside the army and is now all-in to ensure President Assad's survival.

RANDA SLIM: I think all-in is an appropriate description. Hezbollah's role has evolved over the course of the conflict.

AMOS: That's Randa Slim, a Middle East fellow at the New America Foundation, just back from a research trip to Lebanon. She says Hezbollah stepped up its military role after its patron, Iran, said the fall of the Assad is unacceptable.

SLIM: Then we have seen Hezbollah up the ante on its involvement in Syria and now, according - again, to many credible reports, is engaged in the fighting in the ranks of the regime forces.

AMOS: Many military analysts say that Bashar al-Assad can't win the war, but he's a long way from losing it. Joe Holliday at the Institute for the Study of War has been watching videos of Assad's army, often shown on Russian TV.

JOSEPH HOLLIDAY: And these videos show Republican Guard troops in uniforms, all buttoned up with helmets. When you look at all these rebel gains, while they are important, it's important not to underestimate the staying power that the regime does have.

AMOS: And most analysts agree that the longer the war goes on, the more fractured Syria becomes. The war is tearing the country apart. But no side seems to be tired of the fight. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Antakya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.