Without Negotiations, the War in Syria May Not End in the Opposition’s Favor

Beyond temporary advances, military activity in Syrian conflict has been not been significant enough to lead one to believe the status quo on the ground may change soon. However, the Syrian Armed Forces have been building up not so quietly both in terms of size and capabilities. Facing desertions, defections, battlefield losses, and poor morale, worsened by ethnic as well as sectarian divisions among personnel (akin to the Sunni-Shi’a divide that still plaques the Iraqi armed forces and the divisions that ruptured the Yugoslav National Army in the 1990s.) To compensate for those losses and difficulties, the Syrian Army has reinforced itself with local militias, and elite troops from allied countries and fighters Shi’a militia groups. Given this build up of its power and the relative weakness of the opposition forces, it might be possible for the Syrian Army to launch a major offensive that would lead to victory for the Assad regime.

The Current Situation
In 2011, the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, though its political wing, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) announced its armed struggle uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Throughout that summer, its members were engaged in an accelerated mobilization and arms and equipment were amassed. It was not long before arms and equipment began to flow from Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon to the fighters on the ground, known as the Free Syrian Army.

FSA Strength
The initial objective of the Syrian Army and security forces at that time was to prevent the SNC from achieving any real success. The Supreme Military Council (SMC), and its force in the field, the FSA, although initially capturing significant amounts of territory and acquiring momentum, was denied control of Aleppo and a foothold on Damascus. Syrian Army units along the border were given the task to hold their positions, they did not receive any significant reinforcement. A number of border positions collapsed and fell into FSA hands. Strongholds were created in villages, towns, and cities in the shape of a band stretching nearly 30 to 60 miles wide at points from west to east across Syria, from the Euphrates River and Lake al-Assad to Abu Kamal on the border with Jordan. A shorter, connected band of FSA controlled territory was established. It stretched from east to west, from the Euphrates, nearly 40 to 50 miles wide, abutting the Turkish border from Jarabulus to Madydan Ikbiz. Just south of that band was Aleppo, into which the FSA penetrated and secured territory. There was also FSA territory in Idlib province which included a lip of land reaching the coast. Further, the FSA secured a smaller territory in Homs province near Ar Rastan down to the Lebanese border west of Qusayr and over to Talkalakh. Lastly, in Damascus province, the FSA gained territory abutting the border with Lebanon northwest of Damascus from Az Zabadani to An Nabk.

FSA Weaknesses
While the Syrian Opposition wanted regime change, they were not united on many levels. This became most apparent later as they planned the Geneva negotiations in May 2013. At the political level, the SNC and the SMC were at odds not only on negotiations, but on an approach to removing Assad. Initial momentum created enough inertia to drive the FSA to push for greater territory in Syria. This satisfied the SNC because it gave them control over Syrian territory, renamed and reflagged as “Free Syria” and had the effect of removing Assad’s authority over part of the civilian population. While appearing as a success on the part of the FSA, the reality was that without actually destroying the Syrian Army’s capacity to attack and regain ground, destroy the FSA, or keep the Assad regime in power, they had accomplished little. By establishing strongholds and basing itself in town and villages, the FSA had enabled Syrian Army artillery to daily engage in fire missions using heavy guns, rockets, mortars and tank fire against FSA positions. Syrian Air Force bombed and strafed those positions daily.

Further, the FSA, having been mustered together with a curious mix of Syrian retired military, defectors, former reservists, and the movements’ activists, along with Islamic militants and members of the al-Qaida affiliated group, al-Nusra, had some difficulties establishing real cooperation and coordination during operations. The diverse groups at best displayed tolerance toward each other. That situation, along with the fact that the FSA lacked real military power, in terms of fighters, heavy weapons, and the ability to maneuver, meant the force would not likely be able to mount a conventional defense against a potential large scale offensive launched by the Syrian Army and its allies.

The Syrian Army and Allies
The Syrian Armed Forces and its allies can stand up a force that currently holds over 200,000 troops including, the rearmed and adviser supported Syrian Army, other ground units of the armed forces, Mukhabarat or intelligence organizations, the police, Shabiha or paramilitaries and street gangs, as well as Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces, a militia, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iranian Special Forces or Quds Force, Iraqi Shi’a militia.

A Future Scenario
If an attack were launched, the FSA would very likely face an armored and mechanized assault across a broad front to against the ‘Free Syria territory.” That territory and all lines of communication within it would very likely be cut at five major points in the FSA lines: Abu Kamal, Deir az Zawr, Ar Raqqah, along Lake al-Assad and the Euphrates, and Aleppo. The attacking units would unify, redirect, and be reinforced by Syrian Army units in and around those towns. The objective would then be to encircle defined space including and around those points in FSA territory. The five encirclements would serve as areas of responsibility for commanders in them, yet the encirclements would be linked to each other at specified points. The majority of attacking forces would act as quickly and decisively as possible against the FSA in the encirclements, massing on its strongholds, bases, and training facilities. At the same time, a force of sufficient size and strength would break north, away from each encirclement, toward the Turkish or Jordanian borders, to ensure FSA forces in the encirclements did not receive supplies or reinforcement. Secondary concentric attacks would be made on the edges of the encirclements. All elements of the combat power of the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies would be brought to bare on the FSA in each of the five encirclements.

All elements of the FSA infrastructure would likely be removed in the five encirclements. The Syrian security services would very likely attempt to separate the population in the areas from anything connected to the FSA. While attempting to hold on to towns and cities in the encirclements, the FSA would be subjected to the maximum amount of firepower artillery, rockets, mortars, and tanks that the Syrian Army could bring against them. Horribly, the populations of those towns and cities would most likely panic, and chaos and confusion would ensue. Refugees would run from town to town and city to city, increasing the population in each location as they move. That would make mounting a defense at those locations even more difficult for the FSA. As was demonstrated in Qusayr, the FSA is willing to fight to hold down a town knowing the relentless and merciless assaults from the attacking Syrian Army and allied units would terrorize and harm the civilian inhabitants.

Those forces sent beyond the five encirclements, toward the borders of Turkey and Jordan soon would become a blocking force to prevent FSA units to escape to safe havens outside of Syria. They would also likely be driven in that direction under hot pursuit of forces in the surrounded areas. They could very well be trapped moving north or west, displaced from their collapsed defenses and become open to artillery and air attacks travelling on roads or in fields.

While it is hoped that the Syrian Army does not launch an offensive and the US and Russia will be able to broker a peace agreement, it is also possible that war will continue. If time is not on the Syrian Army’s side, power certainly is. If the SNC and SMC continue to reject the efforts of the US, Russia, the EU, and Arab States to find a peace, they could create a tragic situation of their own making. There is no popular support or political support within the US or EU for a war with Russia or Iran over Syria. If Russia raises the stakes, the US may not be willing to put its own well-being and interests at stake for amateurs, more interested in posturing and positioning for power, as opposed to ending the killing and behaving as the founding fathers, and mothers, of a reforged nation. Assad is the world’s problem, not just the Syrian opposition’s problem. The world will decide how to deal with him and the world is not reliant or guided by the SNC’s or SMC’s actions. The best suggestion would be for the SNC and SMC to hurry to the negotiation table before it is too late!

Is the EU ‘Fuelling the Fire of Conflict’ in Syria?

Reporting on the conflict in Syria, the BBC quoted British Foreign Secretary William Hague on May 28th saying there were “No restrictions of arming opposition force.” This statement was a rebuff of other EU member states seeking to delay until August any effort to provide military aid to the National Coalition Opposition and Revolutionary Forces in their two-year long conflict against the regime of Bashir Assad in Syria. The Irish Times on May 28th, quoted Hague as stating, “I know there has been some discussion of some sort of August deadline. That is not the case.” The Europeans should be commended for trying to assist the opposition in Syria. However, committing their states to providing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) military aid, and very likely providing advisers to allow the arms to be absorbed and used, will not be as easy as making bold statements as Secretary Hague’s. A two-month delay for further review of the situation seems reasonable under current circumstances.

The most basic problem with supplying arms to the FSA is the presence of known al-Qaida affiliated groups and militant Islamic fighters within its ranks. Arming the FSA will mean arming the terrorists among them. Yet, beyond that major hurdle, there are other rarely mentioned issues to consider.

Based on reports from news outlets of record his year alone, the FSA has enormous shortages across te board from rifles and grenades to helmets and uniforms. Equipping the FSA with even the most basic arms will require sending in country advisers to train the fighters in their use. Some fighters may have had military training they received as conscripts in the Syrian Army. However, given the performance of the Syrian Army in the civil war to date, it is hard to imagine those fighters from the same army possessing anything more than rudimentary skills as soldiers or none whatsoever if they served in combat support or combat service support units. Equipping and training Iraqi and Afghan force proved quite daunting. It is difficult to assess now whether working to ramp up FSA capabilities would be amy easier.

How the arms would be brought into Syria is another issue. The Europeans may choose to make clandestine deliveries in country by air to ensure delivery to specific FSA units or use land routes already used to deliver nonlethal, medical aid to the FSA. The Russians can fly weapons into the country at will. Yet, Syria may prove to be a truly non-permissive environment for the Europeans if Russian S-300s are fully operational and are used to shoot down European transports by the Syrian Army. Delivering weapons in country may lead to direct engagements between advisers and the Syrian Army or place European advisers under the Syrian Army’s artillery batteries, rockets, and mortars, leading to casualties among them.

Once the FSA receives the European’s weapons, they must use their current have a plan to integrate their use into its military strategy. It is conceivable that the Supreme Military Council and the FSA under General Salim Idriss would continue to engage in gun battles and skirmishes in villages, towns and cities, and commit their units piecemeal in an effort to gain territory. A plan would need to be devised to teach the FSA commanders new tactics and techniques, and better procedures for managing things.

If a decison is made to march the newly armed FSA on Damascus “to protect civilians” by removing Assad, it is uncertain whether the Europeans would provide the FSA close air support to cover its movement and strike at Syrian Army strongholds in depth. A no-fly-zone could be establsihed to keep the Syrian Air Force from destroying FSA units as they moved during the day and night would be helpful, too.

Before any of that is at issue, the Europeans must decide which states will pay for the arms being delivered and which would provide the advisers. They will also need to decide which states, from however many sill have that capability, will provide transport for the arms shipments. The costs may prove to be prohibitive for some states.

However, the most dangerous issue for European capitals to contend with is the presence of Russian and Iranian advisers on the ground in Syria, and Hezbollah, for different reasons. Once the European advisers begin to arrive with the weapons shipments, the Russians will assess the situation and very likely send the Syrian Army bigger and better weapons. The number of Russian advisers on the ground may increase. The Russians must have a considerable number of advisers and soldier on the ground to activate the S-300s and protect Russian interests. Recall that the Russians have been in Syria since Soviet days. If the Syrian Army finds itself in trouble, Russian commanders on the ground may very well take control of Syrian Army operations as advisers. Accurate estimates of Russian advisers in Syria are difficult to develop given the Russians never discuss such matters publicly. If Russian advisers were attacked, the Russians would respond in devastating manner, using Syrian Army heavy weapons at their disposal.

The Iranians are said to have around 4000 fighters in Syria. That matches the estimate for their presence in Bosnia from 1994-1995. If the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian special forces marched on the battlefield, they would have a multiplier effect for the Syrian Army. Consider the problems Israel encountered facing their units in Lebanon in 2006. More so than the Russians, the Iranians are committed to the Assad regime’s victory. In fact, this is the very battle the Iranians want. If they can hurt the Europeans in Syria, the Europeans, most likely in their view, would be less likely to support with forces, any future operations against Iran.

Hezbollah would be the wildcard on the ground. Its fighters are already operation alongside the Syrian Army. European advisers moving around in Syria would become high-value targets for direct action and possibly martyrdom operations. It would be tragic.

It is difficult to imagine that the Europeans could afford to provide military aid for the coflict in Syria. While political will my exist, popular support and the financial wherewithal may not. Arms deliveries to the FSA could drag them into a war by inertia. European capital will not be up for supporting big battles and possibly incurring significant losses among it most capable soldiers. European leaders must be absolutely certain the te conflict would not get beyond civil war to become actual fighting with Russia and Iran. They certainly do not want their troops open to terror attacks on the roads of the tons and villages by Hezbollah. Luckily, some European capitals will give the matter of military aid a closer look between now and August before they find themselves caught in something they do not want to be in.