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!

Has the Syrian Army Actually Left a Door Open for Peace?

It is difficult to determine what the thinking is behind the operations of the Syrian Army in the present conflict. The Syrian Army has considerable size, strength, and capabilities, enhanced on the ground by the presence of allies such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iranian special forces or Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militant brigades. The Syrian Army has far greater combat power available relative to its opponent, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the fighting force of the Syrian oppostion’s military wing, the Syrian Military Council (SMC). It is further enhanced by tons of arms and sophisticated weapon systems from Russia, and additional aid from Iran, and China. Clearly, the Syrian Army is doing very little, with a lot at hand. Just playing it cool! Yet, factors influencing the Syrian Army’s actions, or lack of action, are more likely political than military and perhaps in line with the organization’s culture.

The Syrian Army
While official statistics say the Syrian Army had a strength of 220,000 troops when the war began, the International Institute for Strategic Studies believes that number has fallen to 50,000 loyal forces mainly among Allawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the 3rd and 4th Divisions. However, other analysts have also estimated that when the ranks of the security forces are counted as a whole, including the Mukhabarat or Intelligence organizations, the police, and Shabeeha or paramilitaries/street gangs, the number again rises near 200, 000. The commander in chief of the Syrian Armed Forces is President Bashar al-Assad (the title also includes the rank of field marshal). Day-to-day operations are controlled by Minister of Defense and deputy commander in chief, General Fahd Jassem al-Freij, and chief of general staff of the Army and the Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub. Lieutenant General Ayyoub took direct control of the defense of Aleppo and Damascus. Qusayr was the army’s most robust operation since. However, the operation and its success was followed on all fronts by unimaginative and moderate activity. This has helped to create a confusing picture of Syrian Army commanders’ capabilities.

Qusayr: Not A New Start
In Qusayr, the Syrian Army had specific objectives and initially acted decisively. Qusayr, was Syrian equivalent to Sinjar in Iraq. Qusayr was an entry point for foreign fighters into Syria. (Sinjar was a location determined by the US Joint Special Operations Command to be the entry point for numerous terrorist groups coming into Iraq. US operations in Sinjar had a crippling effect on al-Qaida in Iraq.) The attack on Qusayr was to have a tremedous impact on al-Qaida in Syria. Yet, in addition, by capturing Qusayr, the Syrian Army would cut off Qatari and Saudi Arabian weapons shipments to the FSA coming in covertly from Lebanon It would re-link Damascus to the coast. Further, its capture would mean the beginning of the end for FSA control of Homs province. Weeks before the attack, villages surrounding the town were captured by the army, and units from Hezbollah and the National Defense Forces militia. The town was struck by artillery fire and air sorties the morning before the assault on the town began. Being reported at the same time were Syrian Army advances on other fronts specifically on Halifaya, a town occupied by the terrorist group, the al-Nusra Front and in Damascus, in the Barzeh district. In the following three days, Syrian Army operations lost momentum. The reduction of Qusayr was then taken over by Hezbollah.

In spite of the plethora of analyses that claimed Qusayr was the start of something new for the Syrian Army. Yet, Qusayr was not part of an effort to win the war. It was an effort to eliminate a “uncomfortable advantage” the FSA had. As US Secretary of State John Kerry explained two days after the assault on Qusayr began, the battlefield advances were “very temporary.” Since then, firefights have occurred in Latakia, Aleppo, Homs, Damascus Rural, Damascus, Aqunaitirah, Deir az Zawr, Dar ‘aa, Homs, and Hama. Daily attacks on the FSA mostly take the form of artillery, rocket, and mortar fire missions against FSA strongholds and suspected bases. There have been also occasional raids and arrests, but no general movement. Rather than the start of something new, Qusayr was not the beginning of anything.

Time and Attrition
President Assad may recognize that the FSA lacks the manpower and weaponry to attack and effectively hold enough territory in Syria to claim control over the state. FSA forces, alone, would never be able to threaten what Assad cares for most, his presidency and his regime. It might be viewed that Assad is fighting the war the Syrian opposition’s political wing, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and FSA wants. They desire time to establish a working government in the “Free Syrian Territory.” However, Assad may also feel time is on his side. He may very likely believe that allowing enough time, disunity with the SNC, disunity between the SNC and the FSA, a loss of revolutionary zeal, and a loss of motivation and morale within FSA ranks, the opposition will lose its energy. While plausible, at the moment, that does not appear likely to occur.

“The Gentler Syrian Army”
There is the possibility that the Syrian Army has avoided mass attacks and phased operations against FSA held territory because its commanders want to take a visibly less-aggressive approach in the conflict. The Syrian Army full power and capabilities have not been brought to bare on the FSA. This has given many in the international community the sense that there is no worry that the FSA would be overwhelmed, and there really is no need for emergency action, including the use of force by the US and the EU against Syria. True, the Syrian Army’s activities have been moderate, even though the death toll in Syria is high and grows steadily. (Recent Institute for International Strategic Studies estimates of civilian deaths are around 94,000.) Although the Syrian Army has recklessly fired artillery into towns and villages and Syrian Air Force has bombed civilian targets, recordings of FSA members committing crimes against humanity that were video recorded and viewed worldwide. Supporting this “gentler look” of the Syrian Army, are arguments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that portray Syria as the victim of European leaders “fuelling the fires of war.”

Foreign Proxies for Syria?
Rather than serve as a party to a proxy war, perhaps Syrian Army commanders hope their foreign benefactors would instead fight for Syria. The French Foreign Minister estimated that 3000 to 4000 Hezbollah fighters were in Syria. Israeli analysts estimate that 4000 Iranian officers and men from the IRGC and Quds Force were on the ground. The Russian military presence has not been specified, but in 2012, the Guardian concluded it was considerable. It is doubtful that the Russians will contribute ground forces for the fight. However, Russian advisers would unlikely move too far from S-300 or any other advance missile systems it may provide the Syrians. Reports exist of a planned Russian sale of MiG-29 fighters to Syria soon. Perhaps Russian pilots will train the Syrians in Syria and fly with them. (It is hard to see how the Syrian Air Force would absorb the weapons fast enough to ensure their use in the near term. Taking two examples from history, Russian pilots flew MiGs and drove tanks in Korea in 1950 covertly and manned anti-aircraft and intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba in 1962.) The Iranians would certainly be willing to fight alongside the Syrian Army much as they fought alongside the Bosnian and Herzegovina Armija from 1994 to 1995. Hezbollah is already in the fight, particularly within the Syrian provinces bordering Lebanon. As mentioned earlier, Hezbollah has been given the task to mop up FSA resistance in Qusayr. Iraqi Shi’a militia have been steadily arriving in Syria. They have come to fight. However, having its allies fight for Syria might create sovereignty issues for Assad afterward. Some allies might seek to remain in Syria and retain control of territory they might gain. Since those allies are generally more powerful than the Syrians, that could pose a real problem for Assad’s regime if it is not agreeable to such plans.

The Syrian Army’s “Business Culture”
Another factor in Syrian Army commanders’ planning of operations could be Assad’s actions to date. Assad has clearly gone too far. The commanders must realize that once peace is achieved, with the defeat of the FSA or a settlement, the international community will very likely hold those responsible for war crimes accountable. That was the case in Bosnia, where political and military officials, unable to evade justice, found themselves on trial in The Hague. Planning for life after the war, and after their military careers, is foremost in the minds of senior Syrian Army leaders. In Syria, officers receive reasonable pensions, but salaries are supplemented by entrepreneurial exploits. Many officers own hotels and resorts, defense and high-tech firms, agro-businesses and wood product firms, construction and transportation companies, as well as other industries. They form a portion of the business community. (This situation is not unusual among government bureaucrats, diplomats, and military leaders of other states in the region.) The Assad regime’s survival will enable the senior officers to retain their interests and allow them have a place to stay without fear of capture. For them, it is not best to have an all of nothing fight to the finish. They want the war to end with Syria in reasonable shape. They may even be able to retain their ranks and positions in a transitional government. However, they would unlikely have the same degree of protection from international, as well as Syrian, justice. Assad, knowing this, is likely very careful not to push his commanders too hard for big moves and more action.

It seems the presence and influence of allies and Syrian Army’s “business culture” are factors as important in planning operations in war as men and materiel in the field. Under current conditions, it is unlikely the Syrian Army will lose. Whether it would seek to destroy the FSA is unclear. As long as it is not asked to do so, it will not. Due to foreign influences on the Assad regime and a possible “openness” toward a peaceful resolution among senior Syrian Army leaders, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s approach to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to create peace, may be far more important to the outcome of the war in Syrian than a meeting in Geneva between the parties in conflict. However, since Syria’s journey toward the future must travelled by the Syrians, they must be present at the start of that journey.