There are various versions of Syria's current most popular joke, but usually it goes something like this: The army stops an intercity bus at a checkpoint. All the passengers show their identification papers, except for one man, who lounges in the last row of seats, making no move to comply. The soldiers ask again, growing visibly hostile, until the man snarls: "You'll pay for this! I'm with the intelligence service!"
The checkpoint inspectors look at each other and start to grin. They inform the man: "We're actually with the Free Syrian Army" -- the armed wing of the rebellion.
Syrians have a strong sense for finding the punch line in the horrors they've experienced, even at times that call to mind the bloodiest days of the conflicts that took place in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq. Reports say more than 180 people were slaughtered in massacres over the last few days, many of them women and children. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated last week that "the danger of a civil war is imminent and real" in Syria. But this has been a country at war for some time already.
Yet the cynical joke about the soldiers at the checkpoint reflects a reality that grows closer with each day, one which is welcomed by many Syrians: The regime is finding its soldiers slipping out of its grasp. One noncommissioned officer from the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib, just hours after defecting to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), relates breathlessly how he made his escape: "The officer was sitting there, and when he was alone with me and a friend of mine, he demanded, 'What are you still doing here? Go on and get out of here!' The officer will issue the order to shoot them, the defector says, and he'll call their families and threaten them, but all that is nothing but show. It's over, he says, and it was time for them to disappear.
Shooting from a Distance
Of 400 soldiers originally stationed in the provincial capital of Idlib, just a couple dozen remained last week defending their base near the center of the city, which has seen significant fighting. In the small city of Maraa, near Aleppo, 15 soldiers defected within the space of a week -- as many as in the entire previous year.
In Azaz, where Assad's troops still control a checkpoint at the edge of the city, a heavily fortified city quarter and the minarets of the largest mosque, two soldiers defected a few days ago under the cover of a fake attack. They reported they had received hardly any supplies in weeks, and that they were living on dried out bread and brackish water. One earlier defector had taken with him the numbers of everyone in his unit who owned a cell phone. The FSA then contacted each of them, offering to help them escape. Many of the soldiers found it an attractive offer.
This is just one small insight into the situation in northern Syria, but deserters from other parts of the country who have managed to make their way back to their native villages near Aleppo tell of similar conditions in their own units. Reports of the types of attacks carried out by Assad's troops also suggest the situation in the south, in the area around Damascus, in Deir al-Zor in the east and in Homs in the west is much the same as it is in the north: In many cases, the army no longer deploys its troops, but instead shoots from great distances using tanks and heavy artillery, or from helicopters, strategies which decrease the risk to the army.
One defector from Homs, a city that has also been the site of heavy fighting, describes a cycle of accelerating collapse. "If I'd left sooner, state security would have arrested my family and burned down my house," he says. "But they're not going to come now, certainly not just because of me."
With each bit of the country that slips from the regime's control, the soldiers' fear diminishes. That in turn increases the number of defectors, more and more of whom join the FSA. One officer, who defected to the FSA and has a precise mind for figures, estimates the group has around 40,000 former army soldiers in its ranks, although the proportion of soldiers and civilians varies among regions.
Outwardly, power dynamics in Syria have changed little in the past 15 months. The rebellion has gripped the cities, but unlike in Libya, here there is no still no large, contiguous region for the rebels to defend. But the appearance of stability is deceptive. While it's true that soldiers are no longer allowed to travel by intercity bus without a permit, and that many of those who escape still risk being shot by the omnipresent intelligence service, the fact remains that the regime is no longer able to stay the gradual erosion of its army.
The impression of power and control emanating from the centers of Damascus, Aleppo and other major cities may also be deceptive. The Western half of Syria is a land of villages and small cities, which have joined together with the insurgency in the most densely populated provinces. The area around Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Hama and Daraa together forms a zone in which the government's troops may attack anywhere, at any time, yet are no longer able to control the area permanently. And in many places, the people living here have switched sides. Sunni Muslims have certainly done so, but so have most Druzes and Ismailis. And though Kurdish villages in the northwest, such as Basuta and Ain Dara, have started flying the Kurdish flag in recent weeks, rather than the revolutionary flag with its three stars, there's no one left here who still defends the regime.
Around 50 soldiers are stationed on Sheikh Barakat Mountain near the Church of St. Simeon, northern Syria's famous late antiquity ruin, but for the past two months they've received supplies only by air, because convoys are no longer able to pass through the surrounding area, which is completely under the FSA's control.
'We Don't Get Orders'
The FSA itself is a peculiar entity. It's clear that it's effectively organized at the village level and in small cities, each group loosely connected with other districts and provinces, but without a set hierarchy or command structure. "We have a good relationship with the FSA's commander in exile in Turkey," says one local commander, "but we don't get orders. We're in charge of ourselves."
This set-up isn't enough to allow coordinated attacks on the regime's centers of power, but it appears to be good enough to control the rest of the country. What's sustaining the regime is its monopoly on heavy weaponry, as well as its tough core of 100,000 to 200,000 officers, secret police, elite soldiers and militia members, most of whom are Alawis and fear that the regime's fall would spell their own end as well. These troops have their stronghold in the Ansariyah Mountains in the west of the country and control parts of the larger cities as well, but they no longer hold all the land between.
Everyone -- the rebels, the hundreds of thousands of undecided currently fleeing through the country to wherever they feel they will be somewhat safer, even those who support the regime -- are all dreading the "next step," in the words of Abu Ali al-Dirri, an officer who changed sides six months ago. The next step is the air force.
'They're Going to Bomb the Country'
Syria has made massive improvements to its air force in the past year, but so far, aside from the helicopters, hardly put it into action. "But before the Assads go down, they're going to bomb the country," Dirri believes. For years, he says, the regime has made a point of ensuring the loyalty of the air force, the branch of the military where President Bashar Assad's father Hafez began his career. "They've increased the proportion of Alawi cadets at the military academy in Aleppo constantly, especially in the air force," he says. "They knew things would turn against them at some point."
At most, Dirri says, the regime would face the problem that many older pilots have been discharged in recent years, while many newer pilots have only barely completed the number of flying hours necessary in order to fly a fighter jet. Dirri himself, as a Sunni, hasn't even been allowed to carry a gun since the revolution began.
For years, the officer says, "Russia didn't want to supply replacement parts any more, because we never paid, but now Russia is providing enormous amounts of assistance, even sending over personnel." He adds that more than 1,000 Russian engineers were present in the country this January. Many of them were officially there as agricultural consultants, "but their work doesn't have much to do with agriculture." Iran has sent arms and ammunition, he adds, but not much in the way of personnel, while China has a group of air force specialists stationed at Aleppo's military airports.
Around half of the air force's 360 fighter jets are fully operational, Dirri says. It's roughly the same proportion with its 120 helicopters. Its French "Gazelle" helicopters, equipped with armor-piercing weapons, are in the best condition, "but not a single one of them has ever taken off -- they're all stationed at the presidential palace airport."
Where Will the West Draw a Line?
As long as the West continues to declare every few days that it has no intention of carrying out a military intervention, says Colonel Dirri, the regime in Syria will continue to use everything at its disposal. "Its strength rests in the fact that the whole world is saying, 'We're not going to get involved,'" he says. "If this Rasmussen" -- a reference to NATO's secretary general -- "would just shut his mouth for once, that alone would do Syria a great service!"
At the very latest, after the massacres in Houla two weeks ago and in Mazraat al-Qubair last Wednesday, none of the rebels in northern Syrian still believe the UN's peace plan will be successful. Instead, their greatest hope is little more than a rumor: that at some point the US must surely draw a line, and perhaps Russia too. What will it take to reach that line? The deployment of Syria's air force to carpet-bomb the country? Or perhaps the regime resorting to its arsenal of chemical weapons?
One thing is clear: With or without a vote from the UN Security Council, the rebels want an intervention.