Has Syria's civil war finally begun?

A group of army officers abandon President Bashar al-Assad. Will their "Free Syrian Army" help civilian protesters topple the regime?

A view of the city of Hama, Syria, shows smoke rising as pro-government army tanks firing shells and machine guns storm the city Sunday killing at least 45 civilians.
(Image credit: REUTERS/YouTube via Reuters TV)

As Syrian security forces cracked down brutally on the opposition stronghold of Hama Sunday, a group of officers, including a general, announced that they were deserting and joining the rebels. Lt. Gen. Riad El As'ad called on more soldiers to stop taking orders from the regime and "fight the army of oppression headed by President Bashar al-Assad." Up to now Assad has had a monopoly on military might. Will the defectors give the opposition the upper hand?

This could be the turning point: Assad has always been on shaky ground, say the editors of Israel's Arutz Sheva. He's a member of the minority Alawite Shiite sect, and he's trying to impose his will on the Shiite majority. Former Syrian vice president Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, "Assad's bitter enemy," says Assad won't fall until his army disintegrates. "That disintegration may have begun."

"The end for Assad? High ranking officers desert, join rebels"

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We should have urged generals to desert months ago: "This is huge news," says Lawrence Person at Battleswarm. "Assad is toast" without the military to keep the 70-percent Sunni majority at bay. "If only the Obama Administration had concentrated on turning Syrian generals a few months ago, when unrest first broke out," instead of timidly scolding Assad, "thousands of innocent Syrian civilians might still be alive today, and more democratic Syrian regime might be already be in place."

"Syrian generals defect: End of Assad near?"

The fight for Hama could prove decisive: If Assad can't subdue Hama, says Joshua Landis at Eurasia Review, the city could become a haven for the rebels or an "incubator of an opposition" government, much like Benghazi is in Libya. But even if Assad wins, he could lose, because his brutal tactics up to now have not accomplished "much but infuriate more Syrians."

"Hama being subdued before Ramadan"

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