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The Government, with affiliated militia, adopted a “contraction” of forces strategy in facing the mounting insurgency. While focusing on holding major cities, Government forces also besieged restive towns with layers of security. Towns under armed group control suffered intensified artillery and aerial shelling. Other, mostly rural, areas were abandoned completely by Government forces, but continued to be shelled. Besides conventional ammunition, other types of ammunition were used, including cluster aerial bombs and artillery shells.
Despite its persistent divisions, the insurgency continued to mature into a fighting force increasingly able to challenge Government control of the country and to strike at strategic targets, such as oil fields and airports. In the northern and central provinces, these groups extended their control over increasing swathes of territory, while struggling in the southern and coastal governorates.
As a bulwark against encroaching violence, local residents in some areas have formed ‘Popular Committees’, reportedly to protect their neighbourhoods against anti-Government armed groups and criminal gangs. Some appear to have been trained and armed by the Government. According to defectors, the ranks of Popular Committees mirror the ethnic, religious and class composition of the neighbourhoods they protect. There are reports that some Popular Committees have supported Government forces during military operations as an auxiliary militia. Their presence has been documented across Syria, where at times they are alleged to be participating in house-to-house searches, identity checks, mass arrests, looting and acting as informants. Witnesses frequently describe these groups as Shabbiha [ghosts].
Jaysh al-Sha'bi and the Shabiha are militias that had been instrumental in the Asad regime’s campaign of terror and violence against the citizens of Syria. Jaysh al-Sha’bi was created, and continues to be maintained, with support from Iran and Hizballah and is modeled after the Iranian Basij militia, which has proven itself effective at using violence and intimidation to suppress political dissent within Iran. In a disturbing and dangerous trend, mass killings allegedly perpetrated by Popular Committees have at times taken on sectarian overtones.
Violence increased dramatically in and around major cities, in particular Damascus and Aleppo, where anti-Government fighters advanced to neighborhoods close to the cities’ centers. Mounting tensions led to armed clashes between different armed groups along a sectarian divide. Such incidents took place in mixed communities or where armed groups had attempted to take hold of areas predominantly inhabited by pro-Government minority communities. Some minority communities, notably the Alawites and Christians, formed armed self-defence groups to protect their neighbourhoods from anti-Government fighters by establishing checkpoints around these areas. Some of those local groups, known as Popular Committees, are said to have participated alongside Government forces in military operations.
The conflict in Syria has evolved into a war of attrition that has increasingly put civilians at risk. Anti-Government armed groups conduct their operations from within densely populated civilian areas, putting civilians in the line of fire and causing them to flee their homes. By using civilian objects, such as schools for military purposes, anti-Government armed groups subject civilians to the dangers of war. Government forces conduct their military operations in flagrant disregard of the distinction between civilians and persons directly participating in hostilities.
Public order is breaking down in rebel-held areas of Syria, with widespread looting, crime running rampant and rebel factions fighting among themselves, according to refugees escaping to Lebanon. The refugees painted a bleak picture of mounting violence and lawlessness as civilians scramble to overcome shortages of food, water and fuel. The looting and infighting among rebel units is adding to the misery of civilians who managed to survive during two years of civil war.
The conflict continues to be waged by both Government forces and anti-Government armed groups with insufficient respect for the protection of the civilian population, in clear violation of international humanitarian law. The Government continues its indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardment of civilian areas, while in several instances anti-Government armed groups have located military objectives within or near densely populated areas.
On October 31, 2012 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Syrian National Council can no longer be seen as leading the opposition to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The United States had grown increasingly frustrated by the SNC's failure to include more opposition leaders inside Syria, its personality-driven leadership struggles, and its inability to attract a broad cross-section of Syrians, particularly minority Alawite and Kurds. "This can not be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes but have, in many instances, not been in Syria for 20, 30, 40 years," said Clinton. "There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom." Washington hoped new rebel leaders would emerge from a November meeting of Assad opponents in Doha.
On 12 November 2012 the opposition movement restructured itself into the National Coalition Of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces to try to present a more united front to its Western and Arab backers. A number of Syrian opposition groups, including the Syrian National Council, created a new coalition that they hope would be recognized as the single representative of the broad anti-Assad movement. The Syrian opposition has been plagued by infighting since the start of the anti-Assad revolt in 2011. The opposition has been very disunited, not presenting a convincing front either to those fighting inside Syria or to the regional or international community which would want to help them.
The Arab League's decision on 25 March 2013 to recognize Syria's anti-government coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people has boosted the opposition's international standing and opened the door to increasing an already substantial arms flow to rebel fighters.
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