RAMTHA, Jordan — With Syrian forces tightening their grip in and around Deraa, the city close to this Jordanian border town where the revolt against President Bashar Assad began a year ago, the uprising may be entering a new phase of grinding guerrilla warfare.
Short of ammunition and heavy weapons — and driven from a succession of urban strongholds in recent weeks — rebel bands of civilians, military deserters and Islamic militants will likely turn increasingly to ambushes, bombings and other classic insurgent tactics in their fight to end four decades of Assad family rule, said activists, experts and U.S. officials.
The rebels will "avoid being strong in one area...but rather will want to be more (dispersed) and conduct guerrilla warfare against the army," said Murhaf Jouejati, a member of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition political organization.
"We are not near the end."
The loose amalgam of groups known collectively as the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, are moving their operations into rural areas where they can count on popular support — while hoping that Syrian forces spread themselves and their logistics chains thin in the battle for urban centers where anti-regime protests are continuing.
"The main thing they (the FSA groups) are doing is trying to shift the fighting to less densely populated areas," said Mohammad, an opposition activist in Damascus who asked that his last name be withheld to shield himself from reprisals.
"They are engaging a lot of time on the roads leading to a town or city. The main thing is to cause defections and a loss of morale."
The FSA "knows the terrain, enjoys the support of the communities where they are operating and will be able to engage in a sustained war of attrition against the Syrian army," said Randa Slim, an expert with the Middle East Institute in Washington who is in daily contact with rebels inside Syria.
"They will at least be able to...keep the struggle going." Despite the FSA's recent setbacks, she said, "the trend is not in favor of Assad's survival."
It remains uncertain whether a guerrilla strategy will be more successful for the FSA than trying to hold built-up urban neighborhoods like Baba Amr, the district in the opposition stronghold of Homs that regime forces seized on March 1 after weeks of artillery and rocket barrages that killed hundreds of civilians.
On Tuesday, a regime offensive forced FSA fighters to abandon Idlib, a city near Syria's northeastern border with Turkey.
For now, Assad's grip on power seems relatively secure as his forces and thugs continue scorched-earth onslaughts against Deraa and other opposition bastions that are estimated to have claimed more than 8,000 lives, devastated neighborhoods, and left unknown numbers of Syria's 20 million people short of food, medicines and cash since March 15, 2011.
The army — consisting overwhelmingly of conscripts from the Sunni Muslim majority — remains largely loyal to the regime dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism. Much of Syria's business community has stuck by Assad despite harsh Western sanctions against the regime.
Assad, who claims he is fighting foreign Islamic terrorists, also continues to enjoy the support of Iran's Shiite regime and weapons supplies and diplomatic cover from Russia.
The United States and European and Arab powers, meanwhile, remain unable to forge an approach to stop the slaughter beyond sanctions, withdrawing ambassadors, condemning regime brutality and backing a U.N. effort to open talks with Assad on an Arab League peace plan requiring him to step down — an idea he rejects.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have endorsed calls to arm the Syrian rebels, something the United States and the European allies oppose, fearing an all-out civil war between the country's sects. But there is no sign yet that they are doing so, which has angered many Syrians.
"Closing embassies and economic sanctions are not enough," said Abu Adam, who ran a mobile telephone shop in Damascus before fleeing to Jordan last month. "Arm the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian people have a right to defend themselves."
Senior U.S. intelligence officials said last week that Assad could survive the uprising, although they added that the odds are against him staying in power.
Assad's confidence was evident in his call on Tuesday for May 7 parliamentary elections. That followed a Feb. 26 referendum in which the regime claimed that 89.4 percent of some 8 million voters approved constitutional reforms, backed by Assad, that would ease the ruling Baath Party's monopoly on power.
On Thursday, the regime sought to co-opt the uprising's first anniversary by mobilizing tens of thousands of pro-Assad marchers in Damascus and other cities.
In Deraa, thick black smoke rose from what activists in the town said was a school that regime forces set ablaze after finding walls sprayed with anti-government graffiti.
The incident was reminiscent of the beginning of the uprising, one year ago Thursday, when security forces opened fire in Deraa on several thousand residents who had gathered outside a mosque to protest the arrest and torture of several boys for scrawling anti-Assad graffiti.
With Syrian troops and tanks building up in and around Deraa in apparent preparation for an assault, a steady stream of refugees has been arriving in Jordan, braving mines that regime forces laid along the border in November and December, activists said.
FSA fighters interviewed in recent weeks have complained about shortages of ammunition and heavy weapons, saying they are armed mostly with weapons stolen by defectors or sold to them by corrupt Syrian officers.
But they claim that their ranks are swelling with military defectors and civilians enraged by regime atrocities that have pushed the civilian casualty toll higher.
"There are 250 (Syrian army) defectors in Jordan, but they don't have weapons for them," asserted an anti-Assad activist now based in the Jordanian capital of Amman. He requested anonymity to protect family members in Syria.
A U.S. official, who wasn't authorized to be quoted by name, said that the number of military defectors remains small, but that they are providing "experience and credibility" to FSA groups, which are expected to step up their links and coordination as the uprising continues.
"Right now, the armed Syrian opposition is largely made up of local groups who operate independently of one another," he said. "As the conflict develops, the resistance will try to grow from pockets of locally organized groups in a more coordinated, nationwide campaign."
The situation would change dramatically if the FSA begins receiving cash and arms from the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are anxious to halt the violence that has claimed a majority of Sunni victims and to end Shiite Iran's influence in Syria, experts said. The SNC's attempt to form a committee to coordinate military operations has faltered, however, and the council itself is splintering due to rivalries and resignations.
Jouejati, the SNC member, said he believed that Saudi and Qatari officials will wait for the outcome of an April 2 meeting in Turkey of the "Friends of Syria," a group of more than 60 nations, including the United States, before deciding whether to begin funneling arms-purchasing funds to the FSA.
"I think they want to wait to see ... if there is more international resolve," he said.
(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.)
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