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One last battle

02 Ağustos 2012 Perşembe

Having watched President Bashar al-Assad bludgeon his rebellious citizenry for the past 18 months, the international media is understandably impatient to see the bloodbath brought to an end. It may be that impatience that prompted many news outlets to view last week's rebel attack on the capital, Damascus, as marking the onset of a final reckoning. It was not to be, of course: Even after rebels had struck a decapitating blow that killed four top officials of the regime's command center, their light weaponry proved no match for the armor, artillery and air power of a regime willing to wage war on the streets of its own capital to stay in power. Now, as a new showdown looms in Aleppo, we're again being told that the decisive battle is upon us. But it's not. Despite the many setbacks it has suffered, the regime is far from beaten. And the best analogy for the recent rebel operations inside Syria's two main cities may be the 1968 Tet Offensive staged by the Vietcong revolutionaries against the U.S. and the local allies it was propping up in Vietnam. As the Tet lunar New Year dawned on January 30, 1968, tens of thousands Vietcong insurgents launched a lightning offensive. They mounted simultaneous operations on command and control centers in more than 100 villages and towns, mounted dramatic attacks on six key command centers (including the US Embassy) in the capital, Saigon, and took control of the old imperial capital of Hue for close to a month, as well as besieging the U.S. base at Khe Sanh for three months. The impact -- particularly on US television screens -- was to convince Americans that the Vietnam war was unwinnable, and, indeed, the Nixon Administration began the protracted process of negotiating an American exit almost as soon as he was elected that year. But the Tet Offensive was hardly a final assault on the bastions of U.S. power and the allies it propped up in South Vietnam: The Vietnamese guerrilla forces were still no match for the far more heavily armed, mechanized and air-supported U.S. forces in a pitched battle for territory. Their purpose, instead, was to send a political message: The U.S. and its allies could not prevail and eliminate the Vietcong. The final offensive that swept aside the South Vietnam regime left behind by the now departed U.S. forces came only in the Spring of 1975. The situation in Syria is different in almost every way from that in Vietnam 44 years ago, of course, but the Tet analogy may still hold: Syria's rebels have proved in recent weeks that the regime will not be able to restore its grip over all of the country, or to crush the rebellion by force. For many Syrians, that signals the inevitability of a change of regime -- a realization that will convince many of Assad's less committed allies to switch sides or seek alternatives. So, the battles waged in Syria's two major cities may have dramatically weakened the regime, but they don't yet spell its end. The rebels now control huge swathes of countryside and even clusters of villages, but the key cities remain in the hands of regime forces -- or within their power to reestablish control, given the imbalance of weaponry available. (The Assad regime for the first time used jet fighters in the battle for Aleppo.) And in the north, Syria's Kurds appear to have taken control of many of their own cities, with apparent consent by the regime forces, hoping to establish an autonomous enclave along the lines that their kin in Iraq have done -- a prospect that alarms Turkey because of the central role being played in Syrian Kurdish areas by allies of the PKK. In many ways, the current balance of forces also calls to mind Afghanistan in the mid-'80s, when the Soviets and their allies controlled the key cities but not much else -- and the rebels, effective but deeply divided among themselves, benefited from support from Gulf Arabs and neighboring countries, as well as the CIA. But it remains a war of attrition. After Tet, it took the Vietnamese seven years to launch a final offensive; the Syrians won't have to wait remotely as long. But there may be no "final offensive" in Syria. Mindful of the dangers of Syria (and its Arab neighbors) breaking up into a protracted, bloody civil war if Assad's regime is precipitously toppled -- and also of the lack of legitimacy and authority on the ground of the exile leadership of the Syria National Council they had tried to cultivate as a government-in-waiting -- Western and Arab powers appear to be once again seeking a solution in which Assad is replaced by a general or generals acceptable to the opposition, but capable of holding the security forces together and overseeing a military-led reform along the lines of Egypt's SCAF-led transition. That such improbable schemes are even being considered, at this point, is a sign that the current military stalemate may not be broken any time soon.