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Little hope of dousing the flames of civil war

SYRIA is burning.

It would now take an international diplomatic deluge the equivalent of the rain and snow that has swamped this region over the past few weeks, to extinguish the flames of a civil war that every day inflicts new horrors on those caught in its throes.

Talking yesterday to Syrian opposition activists exiled here in Turkey just a few miles from the Syrian border, it was immediately apparent how news that rebel fighters were making a "tactical withdrawal" from the besieged city of Homs and the fate of the city and its inhabitants, may yet mark a pivotal moment in their revolution.

"If Homs falls, I'll feel like committing suicide," was how one member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – himself from Homs – summed up the despair on hearing that President Bashar al Assad's regime may be on the brink of completely shutting down this "engine room" of the uprising.

Like so much of what goes on inside Syria these days, it is difficult to get an accurate and comprehensive overview of the military and humanitarian situation on the ground.

Predicting in which direction the crisis might go, meanwhile, is made all the more complex by the number of regional and international players all trying to influence the outcome. If, however, President Assad and the rebel leadership have one thing in common, it's that both recognise how impossible it now is to turn back the clock in what increasingly looks like a fight to the death.

In light of the latest news from Homs, perhaps the most pressing question worth considering now is just who, regime or opposition, would most likely succumb first?

Since the beginning of the unrest in Syria, a propaganda war between the two sides has raged almost as fiercely as the street fighting gripping cities like Homs, Hama and Idlib. At the heart of this lies a struggle to influence outside perceptions of the conflict.

While the regime is keen to portray itself as united and a bulwark against "extremists" and "terrorists", the opposition claims Assad's days are numbered and his rule fractured irrevocably. Winning this propaganda battle is crucial, not least for the Syrian opposition because it cannot succeed in ousting Assad without the support of the Syrian people as well as foreign governments.

Almost since the start of the unrest in the country, Syria's opposition groups have been at loggerheads. By and large, the two main umbrella political groups the west could work with, the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC), have incompatible views on how to oust the regime with neither commanding the clear support of Syria's protesters.

Given such differences, the international support to topple the Damascus regime has been slow in coming.

Yesterday, the news that the SNC had formed a military council to oversee and organise armed rebels within the country under a unified leadership came as fighters appeared to be pulling out of their Homs bastion in the Baba Amr district after almost a month of intense Government bombardment.

Announcing the creation of the new council, SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun said that, while the uprising had begun as a non-violent movement, the opposition now had to "shoulder its responsibilities in light of this new reality".

The new reality that Ghalioun speaks of has clearly taken on what some say is a desperate urgency given the latest developments in Homs, where the vastly superior firepower of the Syrian Army is not only resulting in terrible civilian casualties but pushing the rebels on to the back foot and perhaps damaging them irreparably.

Declaring unity among the rebel armed factions is one thing, but as I have heard from Syrian activists here in the Turkish city of Antakya where many are based, tensions exist between groups like the Free Syria Army, Syrian Liberation Army (SLA) and the myriad patchwork of other rebel outfits.

"Yes there have been some clashes," admitted one FSA spokesman yesterday, who like most within the opposition has a near blind faith in the belief that someone, somewhere, from within the international community will come to the opposition's support and rescue.

Though the likes of the United Nations, Washington, London and Paris may be diplomatically dithering, not so others. While having breakfast at my hotel yesterday morning, I was approached by a man who introduced himself as a Kuwaiti and part of a group that included some Saudis who had come to offer financial support to the Syrian opposition groups based in Turkey. "They need money, supplies," he told me. "They need it now, urgently."

What about weapons I asked?

"They have guns, but what they need most is ammunition," he replied, in a way that suggested, why not?

Certainly, Syrian activists here are happy to confirm that other Arab fighters, mainly Libyans, have offered their services to help them fight against Assad in the wake of their own successful toppling of Colonel Gaddafi's regime.

But they are also quick to emphatically point out that the last thing they need are outsiders getting directly involved in the conflict. The important thing they say is that the world sees Syrians, and only Syrians, taking the fight to the regime.

That said, under increasing pressure on the battlefield and with international attempts at mediation moving at a snails pace, the fragile Syrian opposition could easily succumb to offers of financial or material support that come with dangerous strings attached.

Syria's conflict is already burning fiercely. The challenge now for the international community is to contain that blaze before it spreads, possibly with devastating impact across the entire Middle East and beyond.

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