BEIRUT Lebanon — Syrian insurgents struck at high-profile targets in the capital region on Thursday for the third time this week, increasing the impression that momentum in the conflict has started to shift in their direction.
The latest was a double-bombing — one that detonated in the parking garage of the Palace of Justice in downtown Damascus, according to Syrian State Television, and the other at a city police station, according to local residents. The day before it was an attack that destroyed a pro-government television station, and on late Monday it was a Free Syrian Army strike on the barracks of the elite Republican Guard, next to the palace of President Bashar al-Assad.
These assaults followed a wave of high-level military defections from President Bashar al-Assad’s military, and a surprise visit by the former head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, who crossed into Syria and toured what he called “liberated territory” in Idlib, a city near the southern Turkish border.
While none of these developments were militarily decisive, they have helped build a public perception that the opposition, while still clearly underdogs fighting a massive military machine, was finally making some headway.
Even President Assad, who has repeatedly belittled the Syrian insurgency as an insignificant and unpopular movement led by what he calls foreign-backed terrorists, has tacitly acknowledged the tenacity of his opponents, telling the Cabinet on Tuesday that the government was engaged in a war.
The Syrian opposition has been far less successful off the battlefield at creating any impression they have created organized momentum. A bewildering array of groups claim to speak for the movement, including public figures who still cooperate with the Assad government and members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Abulbaset Sayda, the current head of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella organization of expatriate dissidents, was chosen from the Kurdish minority in Syria as a compromise figure that everyone could agree on.
All of Syria’s nongovernment opposition forces are expected to come together at a meeting convened by the Arab League in Cairo on Sunday. That such a gathering is happening for the first time in the 16-month-long uprising is telling.
“There’s consensus on the essentials,” said Fayey Sara, a prominent opposition figure who has remained inside Syria. “The regime has to be removed.” Beyond that, however, differences are rife. Mr. Sara said he had not yet even decided if he will attend the Cairo conference.
The conflict has long since moved past unarmed opposition groups holding demonstrations, and suffering shelling and attacks from government forces as a result. Now in cities throughout Syria, including the capital Damascus and the country’s largest city, Aleppo, the opposition has coalesced around armed groups identifying themselves as elements of the Free Syrian Army. From bases in refugee camps on the Turkish side of the border, the flow of weapons, medical supplies and money has increased.
And this all comes at a time when authorities in Turkey, a former ally of Mr. Assad’s, have stepped up their militarization of the shared 550 — mile-long border with Syria in response to the Syrian downing of a Turkish jet last week.
The conflict has also greatly increased in tempo and violence on all sides. Last June, deaths of civilians and opposition fighters totaled 411, about 14 a day, according to figures compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain based expatriate group with a network in Syria, which bases its data on victims who are positively identified. This month, the Observatory said about 3,000 have already been killed so far — an average of more than 100 per day.
The violence has ratcheted up especially since the United Nations monitoring mission suspended its activities June 16 and has remained hobbled in Damascus and other major cities.
As a result, Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, has convened an international conference in Geneva for Saturday of major powers and Syria’s neighbors, many of them pushing for a political solution that would involve the removal of President Assad.
That would make the conference of Syrian opposition figures even more important, but sniping among them has already begun. A statement released Thursday by the Syrian National Coalition, a group headed by Syrian human rights activist Ammar Qurabi, said the Syrian National Council should only be considered one of many factions. “Negotiating or having dialogue with any one opposition faction is against the will of the people and the Syrian revolution,” the group said.
Even the Syrian National Council is a mixture of many different factions, and Free Syrian Army officers have yet to acknowledge any particular political leadership. Free Syrian Army commander Colonel Riyad al-Asaad and other rebel officers have at times been openly critical of the Syrian National Council.
On the ground in Syria, fighters have been exultant about their recent successes, however Pyrrhic they appear to be.
Moaz, an activist from Damascus who was interviewed by telephone, said he recently visited Hama in central Syria and was stunned to see the entire city under the complete control of the Free Syrian Army. “I couldn’t believe my eyes, there was no presence of government forces or regime people,” he said. There were also, however, no residents left in the city.
Many of the rebels’ victories so far have been at best qualified. The blasts in Damascus on Thursday only wounded a few people, according to Syrian authorities. The attack on the television station on Wednesday disabled its broadcasts for less than a day, and while seven guards and media workers were reported killed, the deaths also brought international and American condemnation for an attack on journalists.
Rebels initially sought to present that attack’s perpetrators as a defecting unit of the elite Republican Guard assigned to the television station, but local residents told journalists that the only guards there were local security guards, not military units. The attack on the Republican Guard base earlier in the week was described by the rebels themselves as only a probe by a small unit of fighters.
They still face a military machine half a million strong, and their lack of political unity makes it difficult for international backers to focus their support. “Even if we have 1,000 FSA soldiers, that is nothing compared to the government’s military force,” said Mr. Sara. “This is not yet a large-scale military conflict.”
That makes the political cohesiveness of the opposition all the more important, he said. “I don’t deny that we have our differences,” he said, “but the opposition today is much better than yesterday.”