With every passing day, Syrian President Bashar Assad loses ground.
Tuesday, May 3, he announced that the army had ended its operations in the southern province of Horon and its anti-regime protest center Daraa and would withdraw "very soon." Two days later, on Thursday, Syrian generals stated that the withdrawal has begun.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that they lied; the forces responsible for shooting protesters at point blank range were still in place in Daraa.
The Syrian ruler shows no sign that he is conscious of the hate his brutal crackdown has generated across his country. When he spoke to visitors to Damascus from the northeastern provinces Tuesday, he remarked coolly that what was happening in Syria could take place in any country.
But the numbers of dead at the hands of his security forces have reached the point where his acts of repression will forever stain the annals of Syrian history: The uprising in Egypt, which has a population of 90 million – more than triple Syria's 26 million inhabitants – left 860 dead. In the ten days since Assad sent the army into disaffected cities, 780 Syrian civilians have been killed and the number rises daily.
His remarks indicate either that he is a cold fish or that his close aides are too scared to tell him that with every passing day he loses the support of more and more army units. This week, no more than 20 percent of the soldiers deployed in the cities obeyed orders to shoot protesters; eighty percent were not even prepared to mount charges against the demonstrators as they did in the first week of the uprising.
Military units refuse to fire. Tanks won't advance on demonstrators
Our military sources recall the conduct of the Egyptian army in January during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. The brigade commanders there didn't even bother to relay orders to the officers to have their men open fire and break up the demonstrations because those orders would have been flouted and resulted in a breakdown in discipline and order. (Incidentally, this is still the case in most Egyptian units.)
In Syria, only 34,000 troops are still obedient. They are members of the 4th Division under the command of Assad's younger brother, Gen. Maher Assad, parts of the 14th Division and units of the Republican Guard. However, since the beginning of the week, the remaining 176,000 soldiers, the bulk of the Syrian army, are defying orders to fire live ammunition at protesters, whether to shoot them in the legs or even in the air to break up rallies.
The defiant units take up positions against the demonstrators when ordered to do so but then remain passive. Tank units, heavy armored carriers and armored infantry line up in columns. But when ordered to advance on demonstrators, they remain stationary.
Our military sources exclusively name the insubordinate units:
The 5th Syrian Division stationed in the Horan province and its capital Daraa near the border with Jordan –where the uprising against the Assad regime started and which became its epicenter.
Our sources reveal that the commander of this division, General Rifai Mohammed, has been missing for several days and no one knows where he is.
Assad's big test Friday in Aleppo
The demonstrators, who have learned to identify the various armored units by their insignia and emblems,
know that the vehicles of this division will not attack them. So when they appear, they clamber atop the vehicles, wave flags and placards and shout '"The people and the army are one!'"
When Assad said the army has completed its mission in Daraa, he must have been covering up for his loss of control.
The 7th Syrian Division stationed in Homs is in the same situation: Its members are refusing to confront the demonstrators. On Wednesday, May 4, Assad deployed tanks and soldiers he believed would obey him around Al-Rastan, a town near Homs.
The 11th Syrian Division stationed near Aleppo, the second biggest city after Damascus with a population of nearly 3 million, is showing signs of insubordination among its officers and men. Friday is the main day of protest in Syria. This week it will be the big test for Aleppo and this division. If large-scale rallies take place there for the first time and if the 11th division refuses to break them up, a very large new nail will have been hammered into Bashar Assad's coffin.
The Syrian ruler tried to restore his grip on Damascus, the capital, with mass arrests in its suburbs Thursday, May 5, after he was forced in mid-week to withdraw army units from the capital's outlying districts and towns for refusing to fight the demonstrators. This means that control of the greater Damascus area and its population of about two million has passed to his opponents. In readiness for the regular outbreaks after Friday prayers, he has positioned 70 armored carriers and 30 tanks of the still-loyal Republican Guard on the main roads around Damascus. They stand ready to roll back into those urban areas and recapture them from the rebels.
Assad is deaf to advice from close advisers to halt crackdown
In the broad reaches of eastern Syria between Abu Kamal on the junction of the Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi borders up to Al-Azur in the north, not a single Syrian soldier is to be seen.
Assad just doesn't have enough loyal forces to send there.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report signs that support for the regime is also crumbling among the ruling Syrian Ba'ath party elite. Diplomats who are party members, high-ranking bureaucrats and senior party activists, once glad to present the ruler's case to the Western and Arabic media, are suddenly too shy to speak on camera and don't return media phone calls.
Some don't conceal their disgust with the Assad regime's harsh means of suppression.
The Syrian Ambassador to Jordan, Bahjat Sulaiman is one of the most prominent Assad loyalists turned critic.
Sulaiman is not just a run-of-the mill diplomat. For many years he headed Syria's powerful intelligence services and was one of Bashar Assad's father President Hafez Assad's closest associates.
Jordan's King Abdullah II, who is very concerned that the Horan unrest will spill over into the Hashemite Kingdom, this week asked some prominent Jordanians to approach the Syrian ambassador and ask him to go to Damascus and tell Assad he must abandon his crackdown and stop the bloodbath engulfing Syria.
But the ambassador replied there was no point. Assad and the incumbent intelligence director, Gen. Ali Mamluk, are fixated on their mistaken course, Sulaiman explained, and refuse to heed any advice to the contrary.