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An Update on the Syrian Conflict

WFP Operations in Homs

A week ago I received a request from a good friend who hails from a Middle Eastern country that is heavily involved in the Syrian conflict. This friend, whom happens to be a diplomat for said country, requested an update on the Syrian crisis covering the war’s most recent events. Below I have provided the report in full. While it does not provide any recommendations, the brief highlights a number of ongoing issues in the conflict, most notably the growing capabilities of Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces. If you have any questions about this report please contact me: corbeilalexander(at)gmail.com

Executive Summary:

The Syrian revolution, which entered its second year this March, has been marked by increased involvement of outside actors, the inability of the political and armed opposition to unify and a reverse of fortunes for rebels on the ground.

Politically, an external struggle has increased between Saudi Arabia and Qatar to take control of the Syrian National Coalition and various rebel groups fighting the government in Damascus. The former Arab Gulf State is backed in their attempt by the United States, France and England who are disturbed by Qatar’s funding of the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim Brotherhood linked fighting groups on the ground.

In terms of the opposition’s political representation, the Syrian National Coalition, on Saturday elected Ahmad Asi al-Jarba. This tribal leader, who won in a runoff vote in which he was only able to secure 55 votes vis-à-vis 52 votes for the Qatari candidate, Mustafa  al-Sabbagh. Al-Jabri will have to deal with three broad issues in the coming months: unifying the political opposition; presenting a strategy for possible Geneva II peace talks and presenting the Syria National Coalition as a viable entity for funneling Western weaponry to rebels.

Fighting on the ground has taken a disastrous turn for rebel groups. The fall of al-Qusayr, near the border with Lebanon last month, signalled part of a new strategy for the regime.  With the backing of Hezbollah, the regime has adopted a new method for dealing with rebel groups — a strategy which has first been adopted in Homs governorate. This has led many outside analysts to state that the momentum is now with the regime and without increased heavy weapon from outside sources loses will continue.

External Political Dynamics:

The Syrian rebels have enjoyed the backing of Gulf state actors, most notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in addition to individual donors from countries including Kuwait. Over the past months, Western countries which have now committed themselves to supplying weaponry (machine guns and maybe anti-tank weapons) have been worried by Qatar’s backing of Muslim Brotherhood elements within the Syrian National Coalition and fighters on the ground.

Last month, under pressure by the United States, the Syrian National Coalition expanded to add 15 members representing the Supreme Military Council, the overarching body representing Western-linked rebel groups. In addition, seats for the secular faction of Michael Kilo, around 11 seats, were added to the Coalition. This move was made to increase both Western and Saudi Arabia influence in the external opposition body and to wrestle much of the control away from Qatar.

On the ground, with the battle of al-Qusayr, Saudi Arabia for the first time was the primary backer of rebel groups, supplying heavy machine guns to a force which was eventually defeated by Hezbollah backed by Syrian Army tanks and aircraft. In response, Qatar has increased backing for the Syrian Islamic Front (not to be confused with the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, led by the American-supported Farouq Bridage), a Salafist coalition led by Ahrar al-Sham an increasingly capable group which was birthed in Idlib governorate at the end of 2011 and has been aptly using guerilla tactics since then. Also of note has been Qatar’s increasing use of its Al Jazeera Arabic channel to present interviews with leaders from the various fighting groups that compose the Syrian Islamic Front. It seems that Qatar is trying to present these groups as viable options for governing Syrian in the future.

The Obama administration’s new commitment to provide weapons to Syrian rebels has yet to come to fruition. It seems at this point, the United States and the countries within the European Union that wish to arm the rebels, France and Britain will eventually provide subsistence weaponry. This is in order to bleed both Iran and Hezbollah without providing the weaponry necessary to beat the Syrian regime. The fear still remains that anti-tank and especially anti-aircraft weaponry will fall into the hands of radical groups and end up as part of regional terror plots.

The External Political Opposition:

With the slim presidential election victory of Ahmad Asi al-Jabri in a runoff election and only by three votes highlights the continued divisions within the external political opposition. Al-Jabri, a long time dissident, hails from the secular faction of the Syrian National Coalition, led by Michael Kilo. The former Prime Minster of the Syrian National Coalition and an individual who headed the relief works section of the group is a lawyer by trade. Hailing from the north of the country and the Shammar tribe, al-Jabri had previously founded exile in Saudi Arabia, a government within which he continues to have strong ties.

With the lack of unity in the Syrian National Coalition and the overarching National Coalition, al-Jabri must now deal with three overarching issues. He must first unify the opposition. With the near splitting of the vote between al-Jabri and Qatar’s man, Mustafa al-Sabbagh, the new president must find a middle ground between those elements backed by Saudi Arabia and those backed by Qatar. Building upon this necessity, al-Jabri has to first build up the Syrian National Coalition as a viable institution for funneling aid and weaponry to rebel controlled areas. Without this strengthening of the Coalition, there will be increased reluctance for the West to provide weapons to the opposition. Furthermore, without this weaponry, the opposition will have a hard time increasing its stance before any Geneva II peace talk takes place.

Lastly, the Syrian National Coalition must provide a unified front and strategy for any future peace talks. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, have been attempting to hold the conference since June and at this point it is being tentatively scheduled for August. The issue is that the opposition has refused to sit down with the regime, given internal divisions, while the latter of which had previously committed to the talks. As time goes on the regime has gained strength on the ground, with the backing of Hezbollah, the opposition will have less incentive to sit at the negotiation table and, without increased weaponry, diminished bargaining chips

The Situation on the Ground:  

With the joint Hezbollah-Syrian Army victory in al-Qusayr the momentum on the ground has been with the regime. A new strategy, bolstered by Hezbollah’s ability to act as a semi-conventional force, utilizing guerilla and counterinsurgency tactics, has given Assad’s forces the upper hand. Due to the limited number of loyal soldiers that the regime can employ it has been unable to secure vast areas of land. Rebels, particularly in the hilly areas of Homs, Idlib and Aleppo governorates and in the eastern desert lands of the country, have been able to avoid or selectively attack regime positions. This rural-urban dynamic has now been shattered by Hezbollah’s entrance.

Instead of fanning out in search of these rebel groups the strategy has now been to force rebel fighters into urban areas, such as the town of al-Qusayr. This allows the regime to cut off supply lines, surround the rebels and utilize tanks, artillery and aircraft to bombard easily marked rebel positions. It is essentially a siege tactic in which rebels are out gunned and starved from their positions. A concentrated tactic, it is a scientific method which takes on a step by step process which is focused on one geographic area at a time.

The strategy is now being applied to central core area of Homs city. Dubbed the cradle of the revolution, regime forces have been unable to sweep out rebel fighters after nearly two years of bombardment in which the Assad has brought all of his tools of war. According to activist reports Hezbollah fighters have entered the fray signalling the adoption of this encircle and bombard strategy. At this momentum, Fox News reports that 2/3 of the rebel held core has been destroyed. As Homs lays both on the north-south and east-west highways and is home to the country’s oil refining capabilities it is the most crucial urban center and key to any future rebel victory. A rebel defeat in this area will signal a new stage in the conflict, one which will be characterized by an increasingly emboldened regime that will then have the freedom to move its forces north towards the hot bed of rebel activity.

Lastly, the city of Aleppo has seen increased military action by rebel forces. Assad had declared in June that a new offensive would soon begin in Syria’s second largest city. This has yet to occur and it seems that it may only begin after Hezbollah and Syrian Army troops have been freed from their duties in Homs and if they are able to capture strategic towns along the north-south highway towards Aleppo; a prospect which they may find difficult given terrain that lends well to guerilla warfare.

In order to stop any military advance into the western outreaches of Aleppo rebels have taken the area of Rashedeen in a pre-emptive strike. This has allowed them to bombard a section of the city, also in its Western part, named “New Aleppo”. This garrison town is where the military was best posed to strike into the surround rural area and into rebel controlled neighbourhoods. While this is good news for rebel fighters, they have been forced to defend their stronghold in the Eastern areas of the city instead of pushing across into government held territory.

Also of note is today’s appointment of General Issam Zaher Eddine as the military leader responsible for combating rebel troops in the city. General Eddine is a controversial figure, a leader of the elite Republican Guard’s 104th Brigade, Alawite, and known simply as the butcher by the Syrian opposition. He is an extremely sectarian man, with videos showing him rallying his unit by promising to kill any Sunnis which get in his way and promoting slogans which play into the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict. He replaces General Mohamed Khaddar who had been blamed for many of the regime’s loses in northern Syria and his new position signals that the regime is already contemplating a new and highly aggressive assault within Aleppo.

 

Author

Alexander Corbeil
Alexander Corbeil

Alexander Corbeil is a senior Middle East analyst with NATO Canada, a blogger for the Foreign Policy Association and has contributed to a number of online publications. In Canada he regularly appears on CTV National News to discuss the Syrian uprising and its regional implications. You can follow Alexander @alex_corbeil.

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