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Veteran war correspondent Patrick Cockburn of The Independent has been in Damascus for 10 days and says he is “struck by the fact that the situation in areas of Syria I have visited is wholly different from the picture given to the world both by foreign leaders and by the foreign media.”Last week NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was on the brink of collapse, and there have been multiple reports that rebels are closing in on the capital and battling within a mile of the presidential palace.
But the “best informed Syrians and foreign diplomats” told Cockburn that recent attacks on the capital have been “thrown back by a government counteroffensive” and recent rebel gains are partly explained by “a new Syrian army strategy to pull back from indefensible outposts and bases and concentrate troops in cities and towns.”
Cockburn drove north 100 miles to Homs and found that all but the Old City of Syria’s third largest city is in government control. And the director of the military hospital covering much of southern Syria told him that the number of wounded arriving every day “indicates sniping, assassinations and small-scale ambushes, but not a fight to the finish.”
Elizabeth Kennedy of the Associated Press reports that Assad is far from finished since he has “thousands of loyal troops and a monopoly on air power.”
Cockburn does acknowledge that Assad’s regime is not in a good place. In the last week rebels have captured two major army installations in Aleppo as well as various air bases near both Aleppo and Damascus. In late November the Internet in the country was cut and the Damascus International Airport was shut down during intense fighting.
And Syria’s vice president recently said that the army cannot defeat the rebel forces, and that the regime may be contemplating an exit strategy in the form of a political settlement.
Nevertheless, Cockburn writes that the regime is “a long way from total defeat, unless there is direct military intervention by foreign powers.”
As for Assad himself, a Russian source reportedly told The London Times that he plans to “fight to his last bullet” in his Alawite ancestral home, where he would be guarded by “at least seven largely Alawite commando battalions and up to one ballistic missile battalion.”
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