Syria's Rebels: Grasping at Straws, Assad's Opposition Turns to Russia

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Alessio Romenzi for TIME

Families seek shelter from rocket attacks in Bab Amr, Syria, Feb. 6, 2012

As the prospects dwindle for a peaceful end to Syria's 11-month revolt, the major political opposition group is piecing together a two-prong strategy to try to cripple President Bashar Assad's regime. First, it is coordinating business owners in Damascus and Aleppo to turn against the regime; secondly, it is trying to have Russia pressure Assad into allowing urgent relief supplies into the country. Both objectives, however, are much more easily said than done. "We believe these things can be done peacefully," says Bassma Kodmani, who heads the foreign relations bureau for the Syrian National Council (SNC) and is one of the council's 10 executive members. "We have not yet lost hope, but we are close to it."

The despair is hardly surprising. After months of Assad's forces opening fire on demonstrators, Syria's conflict increasingly resembles a civil war, with military defectors forming a loosely allied rebel force that shares the name "Free Syrian Army" and securing small pockets of territory. About 6,000 people have been killed since the uprising began last March, about 1,000 of them this year alone, according to human rights groups tracking the daily bloodletting.

With the conflict spiraling into a full-blown humanitarian emergency, opposition leaders believe there might be a chance to drive a wedge — however slim — between Assad and one of his strongest supporters, Russia, which has vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Syrian attacks on civilians. Kodmani says the SNC is beginning to talk to Russian officials about persuading Assad to allow relief organizations access to beleaguered communities, which are increasingly cut off from the outside world. That, the opposition believes, stands a better chance of success than coaxing Moscow into abandoning its long-held friendship with the Damascus regime. Kodmani says the SNC plans to argue that Russia has international responsibilities as a permanent member of the Security Council. "If the regime still refuses humanitarian access Assad will be going against his close ally," Kodmani told TIME in Paris. "Only Russia has the means to pressure Assad into allowing humanitarian access without military intervention."

The humanitarian situation indeed seems dire. In the Bab Amr area of Homs, where about 28,000 people have been encircled by Syrian forces since Feb. 4, about 16 people were killed in a regime attack on Tuesday, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The deepening crisis has shaken Western leaders this week into considering new measures to force Assad's downfall. Officials from 85 countries are set to meet in Tunis to discuss their options. On Monday Republican Sen. John McCain told reporters in Kabul he believed the U.S. should help arm rebel fighters with light weapons — an option so far opposed by President Obama. Instead, U.S. and E.U. officials told reporters on Monday that they are drafting tighter sanctions, which could be implemented within a week, and could include a possible ban on doing business with the Syrian Central Bank — a move which aimed at complicating the regime's ability to finance its military campaign and continue paying security personnel.

Opposition groups believe Assad's financial woes could intensify if they are able to mobilize one key group inside the country: business owners. The businesses have been crucial to keeping cities like Aleppo and Damascus functioning relatively normally through months of turmoil. In addition, business owners are forced to contribute to Assad's security forces, says Kodmani. She says that in recent days the SNC has conducted a flurry of calls and messages to business owners, attempting to coordinate a mass declaration against Assad, which they would make as a group, in the hope of avoiding individual arrests. "They are a source of income, wealth, respect for Assad," she says. "It will force the regime to finance the repression itself." The business community, however, remains wary of the opposition, which has not yet been able to unite across its many factions and to present a united vision of what a post-Assad Syria would look like.

As the revolt nears its one-year anniversary on March 15, opposition groups remain deeply divided, largely between those favoring a military ouster of Assad and those keen to avoid the kind of massive bloodshed Libya suffered during its eight-month war. Despite the thousands of deaths, Kodmani says the SNC is still determined to find a negotiated transfer of power, which would include "regime people who don't have blood on their hands."

Still, the new tactics might not be enough to save Syria from an all-out civil war. And indeed, Kodmani says the opposition has made disastrous mistakes during the uprising. Chief among them, she says, is relying heavily on the Arab League to negotiate a political solution, a strategy Kodmani now believes was a "waste of six months." "We used all our time working with the Arab League until we exhausted every prospect of having the regime agree to anything," she says. The Arab League monitoring mission collapsed in January amid explosive violence in Syria.