Assad's forces fracturing as revolt enters seventh month
Running gun battles between military defectors and President's Assad's forces are becoming more and more commonplace as the Syrian revolt enters its seventh month with no signs that the population is wearying of protesting.
Meanwhile, in an indication of how far the opposition has to go before Assad quits, a massive pro-Assad rally was held in Latakia with tens of thousands of government supporters chanting their loyalty to Syrian president.
Diplomats and military experts say army cohesiveness is fraying and defections increasing as the leadership, largely from the minority Alawite sect, sends troops out to crush unrest across the mainly Sunni Muslim country of 20 million.
"The crackdown is looking increasingly unsustainable. Assad is more unable to rely on the majority Sunni rank and file. It is costing lots of money to move already exhausted core troops and his capability of launching simultaneous strikes on protest centres is diminishing," a European diplomat said.
"The Sunni backlash against him is growing, and we could see a scenario where he will lose the countryside."
The ruling elite faces a nascent armed insurgency emboldened by the overthrow and killing of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, opposition sources say.
Defectors from the military have in recent weeks launched more deadly guerrilla raids on convoys and fortifications in the province of Idlib near the border with Turkey, and along the main Damascus-Aleppo highway in Hama and Homs to the south.
Core troops from Assad's Alawite sect, mainly assigned to the best-equipped Republican Guards and the Fourth Armoured Brigade, show no sign of abandoning Assad.
They are backed by Alawite-dominated Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence, two units in charge of preventing dissent within the military as it presses on with a crackdown which the United Nations says has killed 3,000 people.
A repeated tactic of security forces is to deploy Sunni conscripts in rings around cities and towns, under the scrutiny of Alawite intelligence agents. Hundreds have been killed for refusing to obey orders, anti-Assad activists say.
We've said it before but it's worth repeating; as long as Assad has the support of a few loyal army divisions made up of his Alawite brethren, and as long as they are willing to shoot people down in cold blood, the Syrian president will probably prevail. Other minorities may not like Assad, but they fear a Sunni takeover and will fight with the government as a matter of survival.
Now that the defectors are starting to organize, a full scale civil war is possible. But the rebels are a long way from being able to challenge the armor and airplanes possessed by the government. This leaves it up to the unarmed protestors to keep the rebellion alive until the military situation changes more in their favor.