‘Game over' text sent to Syrian rebels from military
BEIRUT -- Cellphones in Syria rang, buzzed and chirped Thursday with an ominous text message from the military to members of the armed rebellion: "Game over."
The rebels provided their own response to the regime's warning to surrender and disarm by launching new attacks to drive government troops out of the largest city of Aleppo.
There's no indication that the stalemated civil war has taken a decisive turn in any direction, however, and the bloodshed that has already claimed more than 30,000 lives looks likely to drag on for many more months.
Compounding the grim outlook, sharp disagreements between Syria's foreign friends and foes -- on display at the U.N. General Assembly this week -- have prevented a diplomatic solution from taking shape.
Syrians with subscriptions to the country's two cellphone service providers said they began receiving the text messages signed by the Syrian Arab Army urging the rebels to surrender their weapons and warning that a countdown to evict any foreign fighters in the country has begun. Those with prepaid phones did not receive a message, according to residents in the capital of Damascus.
The texts appeared to be a kind of psychological warfare against the rebels by the regime of President Bashar Assad. In August, army helicopters dropped leaflets warning rebels in Damascus to disarm and seek amnesty. Government officials were not available for comment.
The messages are highly unlikely to have any effect on fighters intent on toppling Assad, and rebel supporters shrugged off the regime's warning as a sign of desperation.
Ali, a 28-year-old member of the rebels' Free Syrian Army, said he found the message comical.
"I will never hand over my weapon because the game is not over yet," he said, giving only his first name for fear of reprisals. "It won't be over until Assad's death."
The rebels on Thursday stepped up attacks against regime forces in Aleppo, parts of which they seized two months ago, although they have been unable to dislodge pro-Assad troops from the rest of the northern city of 3 million people.
Opposition activists reported heavy clashes in more than a dozen areas. Government forces shelled several districts, said Mohammed Saeed, a local activist, speaking via Skype. Mortar shells, presumably fired by rebels, also struck several government-held neighborhoods, activists said.
By late Thursday, fighting was still heavy in many areas of the city, said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that compiles reports from Syria. Abdul-Rahman said at least 23 people were killed in several hours of clashes in Aleppo, but that the toll was expected to rise.
The regime said several weeks ago it would retake the city within days, but it has failed to do so, even after sending more ground forces and unleashing near-daily air bombardments and artillery attacks on rebel-held neighborhoods.
Rebel fighters in Damascus staged a brazen attack Wednesday, setting off twin explosions that engulfed the Syrian army headquarters in flames.
Video on Lebanon's Al Manar TV on Thursday showed that rebels briefly occupied the command center before being driven out by government forces, demonstrating the scale of the security breach of the heavily guarded capital.
At least 305 people were killed Wednesday, the highest daily toll so far, said the Observatory. On Thursday, there were more than 80 dead across Syria, including the 23 killed in Aleppo, the group said.
The rate of killings has accelerated, with nearly two-thirds of the conflict's deaths reported in the past five months.
The rising casualties are a result of an increasingly violent war of attrition in which neither side is able to score a decisive blow, even though on paper Assad's military seems vastly superior, both in weapons and troop strength.
Military analysts said the army doesn't have enough reliable troops to tightly control all of the country. Thousands of soldiers have defected to the rebels, while the regime cannot count on many of the remaining forces -- more than 400,000 if counting reserve soldiers and paramilitary groups -- to fight for Assad, they say.
Assad and many in the army command belong to Syria's Alawite minority, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while a majority of the rebels and of the army conscripts are Sunni Muslims.
This relative shortage of ground troops has enabled the rebels to take over large areas of the countryside in the narrow slice of western Syria where most of the population is concentrated, said Joseph Holliday of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
"It's a tradeoff the regime has been forced to make in order to maintain its ... stranglehold on the largest population centers," Holliday said. "It's been forced to cede the countryside to the rebels."
Holliday estimated the rebels have at least 40,000 fighters, based on a unit-by-unit count conducted through phone interviews in June.
The rebels are believed to have received reinforcements over the summer after capturing several border crossings with Turkey and Iraq.
They also boosted their arsenal of rifles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades through smuggling, but mainly by capturing weapons from Syrian troops, said Ausama Monajed, a member of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile. Monajed said he believes the opposition has anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000 fighters.
The regime's response to the initially largely peaceful uprising in March 2011 has escalated steadily -- from shooting at unarmed protesters to sending tanks, shelling neighborhoods and bombing from the air.
Western diplomats at the U.N.'s annual gathering of top leaders expressed frustration over the impasse -- with British Prime Minister David Cameron saying the blood of Syrian children "is a terrible stain" on the deadlocked U.N., where Syria allies Russia and China have blocked harsher anti-Syria sanctions in the Security Council. Russian President Vladimir Putin countered that bloody regime change would only lead to more violence.
"The way things stand, this could go on for a very long time, quite a few months," said Yezid Sayigh, a Beirut-based analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center. "It's not obvious why anything in particular should change dramatically."
Syria's civilians are facing increasingly greater threats.
The U.N. said the number of Syrian refugees could rise to more than 700,000 by the end of the year, from 294,000 who already fled to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. It said 2,000 to 3,000 refugees are crossing into neighboring countries each day. The U.N. refugee agency said it needs close to $490 million to help the refugees, or three times what donors gave so far.
Earlier this week, the U.N.'s World Food Program estimated that those who need food aid in Syria, most of them civilians who left their homes to escape the fighting, has grown from sixfold since April, to about 1.5 million.