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Yearly Roundup: The Anatomy of the Syrian Conflict (1/2)

How does one describe the immense changes in the Syrian conflict this year? Well, a group of rag tag defectors and civilians, beaten so badly in 2011, have transformed into a viable insurgency which has effectively freed anywhere from 40 to 75 percent of the country. Secular and Salafist-leaning rebel groups do the bulk of the lifting in the north-west while the infamous and recently designated terrorist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, has made immense gains along the Euphrates River in the south-east. Hit and run tactics have been replaced by the all-out assault and capture of bases such as the Infantry School in Aleppo, Base 46 in Aleppo Province and the Hamdan Military Airport in Deir ez Zor Province. The yoke of the regime is now forced to deal with ambushes, assassinations, roadside bombings and disturbingly, suicide attacks by an increasingly emboldened opposition. Step by step, outside observers have been witness to the creation of a de-facto no fly zone by rebels in the north of the country. While the rebels have pressed on and made heroic victories, the armed forces of the regime have become, as stated by an International Crisis Group report from August, “a broadly cohesive, hard-core faction fighting an increasingly bitter, fierce and naked struggle for collective survival.” Needless to say, these are not the conditions that create a hurting stalemate on both sides, the main prerequisite for a peace accord.

Writing a year-end review of the events in Syria is a dynamic task. This uprising, in the heart of the Levant, is the most videotaped conflict in human history. While it presents a challenge in terms of research and cross referencing ongoing events, the ability to access information on such a vast scale provides a unique opportunity. Rebel groups, regime soldiers and activists upload to the World Wide Web hundreds of videos on a daily basis. Analysts can no longer “guesstimate” the dynamics of the conflict: rebel capabilities, regime attrition rates and the causalities caused by indiscriminate bombing—all of which now can be estimated with a higher rate of accuracy due to videos and daily reports by groups such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

For the state of play in Syria at the end of November, take a look at my Rebel Gains and Regime Actions Google map, complete with YouTube videos.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad will fall; this every observer can agree upon. The question now becomes, in which manner will the regime crumble and when it will occur? In conversations with Enduring America’s James Miller, who I would argue has the best insight into events on the ground, he provided me with what I would describe as a very short time frame. It is his opinion that Assad will fall in or around eight weeks into the new year. Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War’s , another close observer of the conflict, stated recently at an event with the Center for National Policy that Assad had about three months left. These gentlemen differ in their estimate by only four weeks, which is almost insignificant when one accounts for the drastic changes in the conflict this year.

While these analysts have come to their conclusions through observing the geographical tug-of-war between the two sides and the increasing wherewithal of the rebels, a more striking picture is created through numeracy. While the most lauded number by the media tends to be the roughly 50,000 rebels and civilians killed at the hands of the regime, a more interesting statistic has  been overlooked. Given multiple estimates, the regime is only able to rely on half of its roughly 300,0000 men, given fears of desertion or entire units going rogue. Thus it has imprisoned around 100,000 soldiers, with 2,500 officers being held in the Saidnaya prison. Out of this 100,00, roughly over 40,000, mostly Alawites and Sunnis from the north east have been killed by rebels, according to Tarik Seyit of Liberation and Building Bloc. If one uses the standard military calculation—for every one soldier killed, four are injured—the casualty rate for the Syrian army is insurmountably high. Subsequently, the question becomes, how the uprising in Syria reached this point? If two of the top Syria watchers can provide a window for rebel victory, which at most would be with the first quarter of 2013, how did the conflict get to this point?

The Transformation of the Syrian Conflict

The beginning of 2012 was witness to a change in regime tactics. Having lost territory to protest movements and their newly armed Free Syrian Army protectors, Assad’s inner circle and its societal supporters pinned their hopes on the national army. This shift, away from a security solution, characterized by arbitrary arrests and summary executions by Syria’s clandestine agencies, saw the deployment of the national army. Untainted by the repressive tactics utilized by Air Force Intelligence and other security services, the army began with large scale operations near the heart of the regime power. The town of Zabadani and the Damascene suburb of Duma were both witness to sweeping military operations to restore order and kill rebel units in January.

Syria’s uprising took an increasingly bloody turn in February. The shift towards full scale repression began in two cities: Homs and New York. Russian and Chinese blocking of a United Nations Security Council resolution meant to further curb violence in Syria on February 4 led to a dramatic increase in regime violence. The international protection provided by Moscow and Beijing allowed the Assad regime to take more drastic measures in clamping down on peaceful protesters and the fledgling Free Syrian Army. The result was the near total destruction of the Baba Amr district of Homs and the killing of hundreds of its residents after it came under intense artillery and tank shelling.

Russian representative to the United Nations Security Council, Vitaly Churkin, vetoes a resolution on Syria in February 2012.

This Sunni majority district of Homs, a mixed city also home to Alawites, became the heart of the revolution in 2011. While the rebels claimed that they had strategically retreated from the town in the beginning of March in order to lessen the number of civilian causalities, it was clear that the regime had the upper hand in terms of manpower and weaponry. Furthermore, given the strategic location of the city, a point I will return back to later in the secnd part of this article, Assad’s forces would not let it develop into the bastion of the uprising. That being said, as in Zabadani and Idlib city, the regime`s offensive forced the rebels into the countryside, resulting in an urban-rural stalemate.

The “clear, hold and build” tactics failed to return the area to normalcy, largely due to the fact that the regime did not deal with the refugee issue adequately, further de-legitimizing the rule of Bashar al-Assad. Many of these displaced persons which did not flee the country ended up in the rebellious suburbs of Damascus. Although it presented a failure in terms of counter insurgency doctrine, the victory at Baba Amr emboldened the regime to more vigorously deploy a military solution. Counter insurgency quickly morphed into collective punishment and a scorched earth policy. Further adding to this downward spiral of regime legitimacy, part of the military solution saw units shell towns without conducting clearing operations, in an attempt to keep regime causalities and defections low. To this extent, the regime failed to legitimize its operations against rebel groups and instead became akin to an alien occupation force. This factor was exacerbated by the use of Alawite militias (shabbiha), which perpetrated their first massacre in Karam Zaitun and increasingly worked independently from the regime.

The Baba Amr district of Homs after roughly two months of siege. The cost of supporting the revolution.

During 2011, the regime set out to compartmentalize the country. In Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s two major cities, it sought to insulate the inner districts from their restless suburbs and country side. The Druze populated south of the country and the Kurdish north-east saw a restrained reaction by the regime, in order to ensure support and/or neutrality by these groups. In addition, along with the Christian areas of the country, Assad and his inner circle relied upon the rhetoric of sectarianism and decided to characterize those involved in the uprising as Sunni extremists.

Checkpoints, snipers, informants and corralling of large and district-wide protests were tactics utilized during the compartmentalization process in late 2011. Instead of providing as an effective tool to deal with the uprising, the use of excessive force, meant to alienate the rebel groups from their civilian base, failed. Rather, it forced the armed opposition to shift from holding ground and defending protests to an offensive strategy aimed at creating free areas in the country, meanwhile strengthening its social base. Furthermore, given their support in the civilian populace and the switch to a military solution, rebel groups were able to traverse the countryside, hit regime’s weak points and carry out a campaign of targeted assassinations against regime loyalists and high ranking figures. Given the lack of troops available to the regime and the reliance on many of these limited units to “clear and hold” tactics in crucial urban centers, Assad`s forces were unable to chase them into the countryside.

April saw a U.N.-sponsored ceasefire which went into effect on the 10th. During this period, Assad held cities along the crucial north-south highway, while the opposition held the countryside. Both sides took advantage of the ceasefire to regroup and organize. The lull in regime operations saw rebel groups increased their attacks and the establishment of a plurality of rebel groups. At this point the number of rebel fighters deployed in the field numbered roughly around 40,000.This increase in kinetic events and rebel units was characterized in Damascus by attacks on regime assets and bombings targeting important government and security installations. As noted before, with the devastation in other areas of the country, many refugees flowed into the Damascene suburbs, hidden among them were rebels, hardened and trained by the fight for Baba Amr. In the north of the country it led to a transition from guerrilla warfare by the rebels to a focus on gaining and holding ground. Between March and June, the rebels were able to repel regime attacks on Rastan in Homs province, Ariha in Idlib province and Atareb near Aleppo city. The battle for Syria also expanded near the Turkish border in the North and the Alawite stronghold of Latakia on the Western coast.

The rebels of Rastan have become infamous in Syrian army circles for their ability to knock out regime tanks.

In response, in late May the regime set up checkpoints across Damascus to stem rebel activity there, which largely failed to neutralize the situation. It is important to note that rebel groups in the Jebel al-Zawiyah mountains of Idlib province led this transition toward sustained and coordinated attacks against regime instillation  beginning at the end of May. In June these groups were able to briefly cut off the main road between Aleppo and Damascus, overrunning a fortified checkpoint. The opposition, in an effort to coordinate the fight against Assad at the provincial level, established military councils in Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deraa and Damascus. Syrian security forces expanded the scale and pace of their operations in response to this new guerrilla offensive by the Free Syrian Army.  Fighting in the country became so intense that by midway through the month the United Nations suspended its observer mission in mid-June. As the conflict intensified later on in that month, the regime launched a large scale pre-emptive operation against opposition strongholds north of Damascus, in Qudsaya and Duma; both of which failed to dislodge the fighters.

Check Back Next Week for a Continuation of this Overview and My Predictions for 2013. 



Alexander Corbeil
Alexander Corbeil

Alexander Corbeil is a Substantive Analyst with The SecDev Group focusing on conflict and instability in the developing world. He has written on the topics of radicalization, sectarianism and terrorism in the Levant and Iraq for a number of publications and is also a contributor to Sada: Middle East Analysis. You can follow Alexander @alex_corbeil