By: Alexander Corbeil
The Syrian revolution is sliding towards a full fledged civil war as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has stepped up operations this past week against Syrian security forces. While army units loyal to Bashir al-Assad have cleared the suburbs of Damascus of rebel fighters, the takeover of areas on the regime’s doorstep mark a significant turn of events in the 11-month uprising. Coupled with the still-standing ceasefire agreed to by rebels and the Syrian regime in the town of Zabadani, it is safe to say that the latest chapter of the Arab Spring has turned into a full blown conflict. In what Stratfor has labeled a “psychological pivot,” Assad for the first time conceded territory seized by the rebel force in Zabadani pointing to a shift in the conflict.
As international intervention in Syria is not a feasible or practical option given a multiplicity of issues, not least of which being the regional balance of power, the international community must now asses the ways in which it can support the opposition. A UN Security Council resolution which fully isolates the Assad regime through a condemnation of ongoing atrocities, an international arms embargo, or concrete economic sanctions, is not a feasible option given Russian and Chinese objections. Thus, the West must begin to implement a more covert strategy of aiding the Syrian opposition in order to stop the atrocious killing of civilians, provide the building blocks for democracy, and change the regional balance of power.
While support should continue for the political wing of the uprising, namely the Syrian National Council (SNC), a more robust policy is needed to aid the Free Syrian Army. Recognizing the SNC as the legitimate government of Syria, as Saudi Arabia has already done, is only the first step in bringing the Syrian crisis to an end. As the rebel force has shown that it has the support of the vast majority of Syrians , it is imperative from both a tactical and moral standpoint that its operations be bolstered by outside funding. The West and its allies should follow the example of the Syrian National Council, Saudi Arabia and Qatar by funding the FSA in its endeavor to overthrow President Bashir al-Assad. With Moscow and Beijing standing firmly against any strongly worded Security Council resolutions, it is clear that any United Nations approach to protecting Syrian civilians is doomed to fail. Support for the FSA is even more pertinent given the fact that while the Russian delegation to the UN blocks any meaningful resolution, the country’s military-industrial complex provides arms to the Syrian regime to the tune of $4 billion USD. This is not even to mention the fact that Russian investments, money which the Kremlin does not want to see lost, totals around $20 billion USD. Coupled with Chinese investments and the fact that theport ofTartus is the only fully functional Russian naval base in theMediterranean, both countries would have much to lose if Assad were to fall.
In addition to being the strongest resistance group in the country, The Free Syrian Army is part and parcel of the regional tug-of-war between the West and Assad’s Iranian backers. The Obama administration has already undertaken concrete steps to assess ways in which it can aid the opposition under the auspices of the National Security Council (NSC). These planning sessions, having begun in December, have yet to bear fruit, while innocent civilians and rebel fighters continue to deal with an onslaught of regime repression which has intensified over the past week. As the Arab League observer mission, now suspended, was a dramatic failure that ensured the Assad killing machine charged forward unabated, there can now be only a military solution to the conflict.
The FSA is currently undertaking combat operations in six of the fourteen governorates of Syria, proving itself apt at the art of guerrilla warfare. It is active in the governorates of Idlib, Hama, Homs, Rif Dimash, Deraa, and Deir al-Zour. The armed group has roughly 37 battalions, 17-23 of which are engaged in combat with security forces. This rag-tag force of defectors and armed civilians is now increasingly capable of conducting coordinated local operations, setting up multiple ambushes and utilizing IEDs against government armour. Having raided the stockpiles of the Syrian Army while also smuggling weapons from Iraq’s Anbar province and Lebanon, the FSA has supplemented its lights arms with both the RPG-29 and guided anti-tank missiles.
Clashes between the FSA and Assad’s troops have become a major catalyst for defections by soldiers unwilling to shoot their countrymen-civilian or armed. Thus, the rebel group has become a rallying point for both defectors and the local opposition, allowing for increasingly coordinated attacks and the transfer of military knowledge from trained fighters to armed civilians. Its attacks provide a strain on Assad’s forces by requiring them to operate continuously, engaging in combat on a daily basis. Under sanctions by EU, US, and Arab states, the financially strapped regime may not be able to continue full-fledged operations. While the regime deploys larger forces and conducts increasingly violent operations to combat the FSA, it increases the global visibility of its actions while suffering heavy losses. With international attention on Syriaprovided in part by the actions of the FSA, it is becoming increasingly difficult for its international backers, namely Russiaand China, to allow the Security Council to sit idly by while mass killings and arrest are perpetrated by Syrian security forces.
This all being said, the FSA is not without its internal constraints. First among which is that the rebel force’s battalions seem to fight alone and have not demonstrated that they can undertake coordinated operations at a regional or national level. Thus, the FSA is essentially conducting independent actions against a regime that is highly synchronized in its crackdowns, as seen during the retaking of the Damascus suburbs this week. In order to have the operational capacity to mount large attacks against security forces, it is necessary that the FSA be better coordinated in its actions against Assad’s forces. The second major issue, again revolving around the theme of improved organization, is the FSA’s command structure. Little is known about the extent to which the FSA’s leadership in Turkey exercises control over battalion operations. It seems that Colonel Riad al-Assad, the head of the Free Syrian Army, and his officers do not exercise firm control over opposition fighters. Coupled with reports that Turkey may not be giving Colonel al-Assad and his circle free reign within the country, the operational capacity of the FSA comes into question.
The West, having been rebuffed in its attempt to bring forceful international condemnation against the Assad regime, must now entertain more intrusive options to alleviate the Syrian situation. The FSA is a powerful force against the government of Syria and key to breaking the trade routes between Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Syrian conflict has become a civil war; the death toll coupled with the ongoing intensity of violence highlights this in an undeniable way. These mounting atrocities are coupled with the fact that a proxy war is currently in the making. Iran and Hezbollah are actively involved in supporting the Assad regime providing weapons, intelligence, and elite squads to put down peaceful protests and halt the FSA’s advance. Russia for its part has been active in supplying government forces with munitions to continue the slaughter of Syrian civilians by the state killing machine. The only hope for the FSA so far has been commitments by both Saudi Arabia and Qatar to fund and arm the rebel force as a bulwark against Iranian expansion in the region and to provide for the re-Sunnification of the “beating heart of the Middle East”.
Weapons are not enough to bolster this force into a lean fighting machine capable of storming Damascusand toppling the Assad regime. The FSA needs sophisticated communications technology to allow its battalions to be in constant contact with one another in order to facilitate complex operations. With this ability, the rebel force could stage large scale attacks on Assad’s forces and in turn allow for a coordinated push towards the capital. Furthermore, with an expanded communications network, the FSA’s leadership in Turkeywould be able to monitor and quickly assess changing circumstances on the ground, allowing for a more robust and dynamic fighting force to evolve. The West, most notably the Obama administration, is hesitant to provide arms to the Syrian opposition. Given the fact that a multiplicity of arms in the hands of inexperience fighters in what is beginning to resemble a sectarian battle is not only unwise but potential explosive, the US has made the right choice. In addition, a proliferation of armed groups in the wake of a post-Assad Syria comes with its own perils, as Libyan observers have noted. Thus, in addition to high-tech communications equipment, Western governments, particularly theUS, should provide the FSA with intelligence information such as satellite photos of military installations and troop movements. The civil war has already begun and international meddling by powers supporting Assad is in full swing. The West has been late to this realization, but the opportunity has not passed, in order to support the people of Syria one must bolster the capacity of their only hope, the Free Syrian Army.
No Military Options in Syria ; Obama Administration Secretly Preparing Options for Aiding the Syrian Opposition ; Leaked Syria Observers’ Report Details Failings of Mission ; The Free Syrian Army Bleeds the Assad Regime ; The Security Council Takes on Syria ; Arab League Calls for UN Action on Syria ; Security Council Showdown on Syria ; Hezbollah’s Secret War on Syrian Rebels ; Syrian Rebel’s Supply Lines
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