Foreign Policy Blogs

Syrian Predictions 2013, Look North

In my previous two posts I provided what I have come to believe are the most important events and aspects of the Syrian civil war to date. Bashar al-Assad’s country is no more; it has been replaced by a parcelized system. Free Syrian Army (FSA) and jihadist units in the northwest: the commercial hub of Aleppo, Reef Aleppo (Aleppo countryside) and Reef Idlib. To the northeast, the Kurdish PYD militias have taken control of areas seceded to Kurdish control by the regime. This, of course, was part of a full-scale strategy to redistribute troops to guard the capital and Damascene suburbs. In the south-east, along the Euphrates river, Jabhat al-Nusra and its marauding jihadist allies have moved up from Iraq and have now surrounded the last remaining regime base in the province, at Deir ez Zor.

With all of this chaos, and the country wide destruction caused by a protracted conflict, one would think that each region is of substantial importance. While Damascus, as the seat of power, is a highly important strategic target, the Syrian revolution will be decided in the north.

The governorates (provinces) of Aleppo and Idlib are where the battle will shift, heroes will be made and the political future of Syria decided. Rebels in the countryside of both provinces have yet to suffer a major defeat in roughly two months. On the offensive, Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and the infamous Jabhat al-Nusra have sought to target lightly to medium defended regime posts and airbases. The latter group, having borne witness to the painstaking war of attrition in Aleppo city changed its policy in November, joining and bolstering victorious rebel forces in the countryside.

Each victory, whether overrunning Sheikh Suleiman airbase in the Aleppo governorate in December or the Taftanaz airbase in the Idlib governorate this month, provides the rebels with more material. Access to heavy weapons, armored vehicles and artillery are crucial to continuing the rebel momentum. In addition, in some cases these victories have even led to the capture of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). All of these tools of war are required for sustained assaults on heavily guarded regime installations: support weapons for suppression and explosive power, MANPADS and other anti-air weaponry to deter/destroy the threat of retaliatory airstrikes.

This strategy of conquering smaller installations for their weaponry and cutting off regime supply routes has been a fruitful one. With the fall of Taftanaz airbase on January 11, utilizing newly acquired heavy weaponry and anti-air capabilities during the month-long assault, all serve as a perfect example. Taftanaz, as an illuminating report by Andrew Tabler and his associates at The Washington Institute has shown, is home to 20% of the regime’s serviceable helicopters. Crucial for resupplying troops, attacking rebels and harassing the general population, the victory at Taftanaz has ensured that regime air presence in the north will dramatically decrease.

An indication of the strength of this domino strategy is the FSA’s announcement about its campaign to liberate southern Idlib governorate. Straddling the Alawite homeland in the governorate of Latakia, a rebel victory in Idlib would put this area under threat. With their families and kin threatened, the Alawite leaders within the military will be forced to re-route troops from the government heartland (Damascus and its countryside) eastward. Furthermore, to eradicate this threat, the regime would be forced to move on Idlib governorate en masse, a logistic impossibility.

A lack of trustworthy regiments, the threat of rebel ambushes and a prolonged guerrilla war, not to mention the rebel’s newly acquired heavy weaponry, limit the regime’s ability to succeed in such an endeavor.

So what situation are we likely to see? Given rebel advances, the new southern Idlib theatre and regime impotency, expect a concerted push by both moderate and Islamist forces south. The country’s best armed rebel groups, benefiting from proximity to the Turkish border and international financing, could soon make a move. With a probable regime defeat in the Idlib governorate, rebels will follow the M5 highway down towards Damascus. Rebels there are in dire need of support, money and heavy weaponry, all of which are available to their northern counterparts.

But the road to Damascus is a long one. In between the rebels and victory are the major cities of Hama and Homs. Each of these areas have been witness to regime atrocities, past and present. Hama is home to a large number of regime troops, but will be a walk in the part compared to Homs. Arguably the most strategic city in the entire country, Homs boasts a connection between north-south and east-west highways, giving whoever holds the city access to the entire country. It also has a substantial amount of Syria’s oil infrastructure, providing lucrative funds to the regime.

Assad’s troops have ringed the city with tanks and units of its 4th Armored Division. These battled-hardened troops are majority Alawite whose sole purpose is to defend the regime to death. This is where I believe the rebel advances will be stopped or muddled in an Aleppo-style war of attrition. Facing the same issues as rebels in Damascus; namely well-armed and well-trained Syrian elite forces. While northern rebels are better equipped, they must overcome heavily armored tanks and a plurality of large caliber guns.

The result may be a shift in tactics by rebel groups pushing towards Damascus, While there has been much talk about an Alawite statelet, many analysts have not viewed the Alawite governorates on the coast as a strategic vulnerability of the Assad regime.

The various rebel groups may come to the conclusion that shifting the attention of some of their platoons to the Mediterranean coast would be highly useful. Keeping Latakia and Tartous governorates hostage would, as stated previously, force a diversion of troops to these areas. Furthermore, it would provide rebel factions with a bargaining chip, given Assad’s recent forays.

While the push southward and the predicated focus on the Mediterranean provinces would see the tide further shift in the rebel’s direction, it has some worrying consequences. With Islamist groups–who have stressed the sectarian element of the conflict–taking the lead, one would fear for the safety of Alawite civilians.

In my opinion, the only way to remedy this situation is found in the Brooking Institute’s The Road Beyond Damascus by Michael Doran and Salman Sheikh. While I must humbly disagree with the authors’ call for a no-fly zone, which I believe to be unwarranted and costly to those involved, the main tenants of this call for American involvement are what is required for a smooth transition in Syria.