ON THE THIRD ANNIVERSARY OF THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR: SOME REFLECTIONS ON WESTERN POLICY
The regime's political goals are to remain in power, restore its control over as much of Syria as it can, and render the political opposition an irrelevant exile movement. Its military goal is to reduce the armed opposition to a manageable terrorist threat. This does not imply that the opposition has to be completely eliminated or that every inch of lost ground has to be recovered. Yet the regime has never shown any intention other than to fight, and it fights essentially everywhere in Syria. It does not negotiate with the opposition, and it does not give up on any province. The military strategy to achieve these goals entails use of all elements of military power (air, ground, missile, and irregular) to secure important areas and regain territory lost to the rebels. Specifically, the regime aims to keep its grip on loyal provinces (Tartus, Latakia, al-Suwayda), maintain a presence in key parts of contested provinces (e.g., Damascus city, Deir al-Zour, Idlib, Deraa), and regain important lost territory (Damascus suburbs, Aleppo city, Qalamoun). This approach allows the regime to conserve forces in less important or mostly secure areas while concentrating forces for offensive action in places it deems critical.... A number of factors have contributed to the regime's recent successes. First, the presence of allied forces is crucial, especially in offensive operations. The involvement of Hezbollah forces and Iraqi militants is not a guarantee of success, but it significantly increases the regime's chances.... Accordingly, many are concerned about the rebels suffering potentially substantial defeats in Aleppo and Damascus. While this is unlikely to happen overnight, there is always the possibility of a quick collapse of resistance through the cumulative effects of casualties, logistical problems, loss of will to fight, and declining popular support. The rebels have fought long and hard on many fronts, but their determination may not last indefinitely. It is an open question whether they can respond effectively to the regime's challenge without greater internal unity and significant outside military assistance, including arms, training, advice, and intelligence.Jeffrey White, "The Assad Regime Winning by Inches?" The Washington Institute. 11 March 2014, in www.washingtoninstitute.org
Hundreds of foreign fighters have abandoned rebel ranks in northern Syria as frustration rises over bloody infighting there – a trend that suggests declining enthusiasm among hardline Sunni Muslim militants participating in Syria’s torturous civil war and raises concerns among western security officials that these combatants may head to other countries. The outflow of foreign militants is still small, rebels and activists say, but illustrates the disillusionment many appear to feel as they spend more time fighting each other than the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. More than 4,000 people have died in three months of rebel-on-rebel clashes across opposition-held territories in northern and eastern Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition advocacy group. “These fighters feel they came to fight an oppressive regime, not rebels. The numbers are not huge, but this is important because it shows the level of resentment among foreign fighters over what is happening,” said Rami Abdelrahman, the Observatory’s director. “These fighters are asking, what is this cause I’m dying for?....” The infighting among rebel groups began in January when an alliance of moderate and Islamist units launched a campaign against the radical Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham amid tensions over the control of lucrative border crossings and oilfields. Non-Isis fighters were also angered by the group’s seizure of rebel territory and its focus on building an Islamic statelet between eastern Syria and Iraq rather than fighting Mr Assad.... One source close to Isis, who asked not to be named, said most aligned with the group who “copped out” of Syria were being sent to Iraq instead. Iraqi officials have noticed the rising numbers, according to one western security official, and Isis and Iraqi forces have been battling in majority Sunni areas of the country. Disillusionment is growing among all rebels as they grapple with the increasingly convoluted conflict, argued one Syrian fighter from the Suqur al-Sham brigades in the north. Syria’s civil war now has three fronts: rebels against the government across the country; rebels and the government against separatist Kurds; and now, rebels against each other.Erika Solomon & Sam Jones, "Disillusioned foreign fighters abandon rebel ranks in Syria." The Financial Times. 18 March 2014, in www.ft.com. On the third anniversary of the beginnings of the Syrian Civil War should inspire some serious thoughts as to where the conflict is and what is the likely resolution of the same. I would like to endeavor the same herein as follows: the initial uprising was inspired of course by the atmosphere of the so-called 'Arab Spring' in the Winter and Spring of 2011. In retrospect there was a certain amount of naïveté on the likelihood that the regime of Assad Fils would willing reform itself. While it seemed to those unfamiliar with the rule of Assad Père and Fils since 1970, that reform, albeit from the top was possible, of course this was a completely illusory idea. Both Assad Father and Son have never shown the least hint that they would willing abdicate power `a la ex-President Mubarak of Egypt. Accordingly, from the very start the regime responded to first the demonstrations and then the uprising proper with an iron fist. With the only surprise being that the 'iron fist' policy `a la Assad Père in Hama and elsewhere circa 1979-1982 1. Something which was part and parcel of larger socioeconomic changes in the landscape of the country resulting from the embourgeoisement of the inner circles of the regime in the past fifteen years 2. With much if not all of the groundswell of the uprising coming from impoverished rural Sunni masses crowding into the cities and towns. In a short amount of time, the mostly Sunni army splintered into its component parts with the rebels being made up of Sunni foot soldiers and regular army officers fighting the elite, mostly Alawite regime forces and its Alawite volunteer cohorts. At this point in time, notwithstanding the influx of Islamist volunteers from Sunni countries in the Gulf and further abroad, the Assad regime appears to most expert opinion at this point to be safely in the saddle. Marginally, better-off in terms of the military balance than its Sunni adversaries. A state of affairs not that surprising given the very active assistance that Assad has received from his allies in Persia, Russia and the Lebanon. Given his near complete control of the major highways in the centre of the country as well as its sea ports, it would appear almost impossible that Assad will be overthrown anytime soon. Especially given the recent infighting in the opposition and the growing doubts about the likelihood of a rebel victory. Given this fact, it is time to perhaps beg the question if the Western powers should perhaps re-think its hostility to Assad and his regime. Given the fact that extreme Islamist elements are the most successful elements of the armed opposition, one would have to be blind to the dangers of such groups emerging victorious. The simple if sad truth is that Syria under the grip of Assad and his clique, while extremely unpleasant is not by any means a real danger to Western interests. Indeed, if nothing else, the war since 2011, has effectively enfeebled both Assad and his regime as per his regional standing and power. Accordingly to my mind a change in direction in terms of Western policy is something to be seriously considered as it relates to the Syrian conflict. Simply burying one's heads in the sands and hoping that the moderate elements of the opposition will emerge on top at the end of the day is simply la grande illusion. 1. Christopher Dickey, "Assad and his Allies: Irreconcilable Differences". Foreign Affairs. (Fall 1987), pp. 64-65. 2. Raymond Hinnebusch, "Syria: from 'authoritarian upgrading' to revolution". International Affairs. (January 2012), pp. 101-108.