Is Syria at a tipping point?

Residents of Damascus are telling western reporters that there are clashes going on between President Assad's loyalist army forces and army defectors in a suburb of the capitol.

This is an entirely plausible scenario. Assad can only truly depend on one or two battalion sized armored units officered by Alawites and commanded by his brother in law. There are also about 5,000 fanatical Alawite militiamen who will stick with the dictator to the last.

But the bulk of the army is made up of Sunni conscripts. Therefore, it is not surprising that they would balk at firing into crowds of unarmed citizens. The potential for the bulk of the army to turn on Assad has always been there, and for the president, there is not greater nightmare he can imagine.


Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fought gun battles overnight near a northeast Damascus suburb with army defectors who had refused to shoot at a pro-democracy protest, residents said on Sunday.


Dozens of soldiers defected and fled into al-Ghouta, an area of orchards and farmland, after pro-Assad forces fired at a large crowd of demonstrators near the Damascus suburb of Harasta to prevent them from marching on the capital, residents said.

"The army has been firing heavy machineguns throughout the night at al-Ghouta and they were being met with response from smaller rifles," a resident of Harasta told Reuters by phone.

It was the first reported defection around the capital, where Assad's core forces are based.

There have been defections before, but far outside the periphery. The fact these battles are taking place near Damascus could be the spark that causes mass defections and the inevitable end of Assad.

But don't bet on it. The Alawites, a small minority in Syria, run the economy, have the best jobs, and get the plum military assignments. If Assad loses, they lose everything which is why they will fight fiercely to hang on to power.