SYRIA ON THE BRINK The beginning of the end
By Brian M Downing
Opposition to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria has been firming
since the beginning of the Arab Spring earlier this year.
The government's efforts to wait out and use force to end the opposition have
failed thus far. Public opposition remains strong, almost mythic, even after
thousands of deaths and the arrest and torture of thousands more. After many
months now, the opposition may be nearing the point of eroding the Syrian
military and state and bringing an end to the rule of Assad.
The regime's repressive capacity
Assad has responded to the popular uprising with persistent brutality, though
it has thus far fallen short of the response his
father, Hafez al-Assad, to the 1982 battle in Hama.
That month-long campaign killed tens of thousands as security forces and
military units pitilessly crushed the Muslim Brotherhood bastion there. A
repeat of that is unlikely. The opposition today is not confined to a small
network in a few cities. It is too broadly based and geographically spread out
for the security forces and elite military units to handle in that manner - or
in any manner.
The 220,000-man army is composed of a large number of conscripts drawn from the
general population, and though indoctrinated and regimented, they cannot be
relied upon to fire into crowds and otherwise repress a popular uprising. Those
grim tasks are being done by security forces, elite army units, and
semi-trained militias, which are expert and ruthless, but spread too thin.
The opposition has been encouraged by an undetermined number of desertions from
the army and the coalescence of a Free Syrian Army about which more shall be
said anon. Its origins and potential growth into greater significance lie in
the unwillingness of the regular army to engage in killing fellow Syrians.
The government, then, has to refrain from the ferocity visited on Hama in 1982
for fear that it will cause more desertions and perhaps the regime's greatest
fear - a revolt of a full brigade or division that would give the opposition a
significant conventional force and a sizable region that would soon enough
become a "free Syria".
Foreign support for the regime
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was able to retain control of western Libya with the
aid of foreign mercenaries from the Tuareg people of the Sahara and several
African countries on which he bestowed generous subsidies. They fought in the
face of unrelenting North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air strikes and
rebel attacks and even put up effective resistance in redoubts around Tripoli
and Sirte until the end came. The Syrian government has no such mercenary force
at its disposal.
Syria's neighbors generally oppose it as an enduring ally of Shi'ite Iran and
wish to see it fall, wary though they are of what will come in its place. Saudi
Arabia initially supported the Assad regime, most likely to support autocracy
in the region and to persuade it to break with Saudi Arabia's nemesis in
Tehran, but now Riyadh calls for Assad to step down. Recently, Jordan also
called for Assad to leave.
As the regime sees its isolation grow and its repressive power weaken, it will
look to Iran for help. There are already reports of Islamic Revolutionary
Guards Corps (IRGC) advisers in the country, but it's doubtful they have
anything to impart to the Syrian security forces whose brutality is plain and
in little need of tutoring.
The introduction of Iranian forces is unlikely as it brings in regional and
international politics. An Iranian presence would lead to strong objections
from neighboring states, raise the likelihood of civil war between Shi'ite and
Sunni Syrians, and lead to escalated attacks inside Iran conducted by Saudi,
Israeli and US intelligence services. It might also raise the likelihood of
unrest inside Iran as its own repressive capacity weakens, albeit temporarily
For many months the opposition held fast to non-violent protest, even in the
face of gunfire and artillery fire. More recently, however, the opposition is
arming itself and engaging in attacks and skirmishes with security and army
Arms are coming in from adjacent Lebanon, whose Hezbollah government has ties
to the Assad regime but has little control over arms bazaars in its territory
and smuggling abroad. The clandestine Muslim Brotherhood has long had to rely
on secret channels to communicate and recruit; its networks are readily suited
to arms smuggling, clandestine organization, and limited attacks.
Syria's conscript army means that a large portion of the population over the
age of 18 knows how to use rifles and operate in disciplined, concerted group.
In this respect, they are like the Arab veterans of the French army during
World War II who returned to Algeria and Tunisia and became the cadres and
fighters in the liberation fronts of the post-war years.
Further, there are hundreds of thousands of Sunni Iraqis who have fled the
Shi'ite government back home and bristle with resentment toward Iran and its
Alawite allies in Damascus. The Sunni-Iraqi emigres are tied to Salafist and
anti-Shi'ite groups in Iraq who in turn are tied to Saudi Arabia, which seeks
to detach Syria from its longstanding ties to Iran.
There have been a number of Syrian officers and soldiers who have quit their
units and joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group whose numbers are unclear
to outsiders, probably exaggerated by the opposition, and quite worrisome if
not unnerving to the regime. There is no evidence of whole units - say,
battalions of 500 men or more - going over to the opposition and operating
against the security forces. That would be a sign of the regime's
disintegration and impending fall.
The FSA has engaged security forces in several sharp attacks that left the
latter with scores of casualties and an abiding concern for their troop
movements and communication links. The FSA and the less-trained guerilla forces
concentrate their attacks on security forces rather than the regular army as
the latter is more likely to have troops willing to go over to the rebels.
Security forces once moved from trouble spot to trouble spot with little fear
along the road. Now they must move more cautiously and watch the army units
alongside them for signs of disaffection and defection.
The rebel forces seek to establish a region or a cluster of cities in which
they can form an alternate government on Syrian soil, construct conventional
defenses, and draw government forces into costly attacks on fixed positions.
This would parallel the Libyan rebels who wore down the vaunted Khames Brigade
in Misurata - a protracted and bloody battle that gravely wounded the Gaddafi
The FSA can undermine opposing forces in non-lethal ways. Armies have countless
informal networks running through them based on common training backgrounds,
common patrons and mentors and tribal affiliations. FSA officers are
undoubtedly contacting their colleagues in the regular army, apprising them of
the regime's poor prospects, and offering an honored position in the new army.
Air force and navy officers may defect with their planes and ships to nearby
Turkey and work with the FSA.
The international community has been slowly heaping criticism, sanctions and
occasional threats on the Assad government. Every day brings more bad news to
the isolated regime. The usually inert Arab League is now on the verge of
expelling Syria from its membership. Foreign assistance in the form of military
intervention is greatly hoped for by the opposition and greatly feared by the
The Libyan case in which NATO and a few Gulf states intervened is presently
unlikely to be followed. The protracted air campaign against Gaddafi showed
military limitations and internal strains in the alliance. Western publics are
looking toward domestic problems and parts of it have strenuous opposition to
actions in former colonies even in the best of times, resonant as they are to
old imperialist actions.
Nonetheless, sharper ground fighting in Syria, especially if near liberated
areas and accompanied by documented atrocities, could prod NATO countries to
act once more. Intervention can also be influenced by the perception of a
Muslim Brotherhood ascendancy, fear of Shi'ite-Sunni warfare and Saudi-Iranian
intervention, or the wish to gain influence in an important part of a new
NATO intervention could be in conjunction with Arab sates that see Assad's fall
as inevitable and wish to avoid sectarian conflict. Qatar and the United Arab
Emirates contributed to Gaddafi's ouster and could help with a no-fly zone over
Syria and with arms shipments to the opposition. A few drones overhead would
strike fear into government troops and the leadership ensconced in Damascus, as
would a fighter or two flying low on afterburners.
Turkey, a NATO member but an increasingly independent one, may play a vital
role with or without alliance partners. It is already giving sanctuary to
oppositional forces and is gradually escalating pressure on Assad. Turkey is
reportedly considering establishing an air cap over any city or region able to
assert independence from Damascus.
Turkey is a rising power seeking to become a regional power linking Western
Europe with Central Asia and its hydrocarbon wealth. A diplomatic campaign that
effected Assad's ouster would add to that ambition as would a swift, decisive
military campaign that brought the same. Ousting Assad would position Turkey to
better pursue its goal of brokering a settlement to the Palestinian problem,
which would all but assure its regional preeminence.
The machinery of the Assad state is slowing down. Small parts are breaking off
and doing damage to larger more critical ones. Meanwhile the opposition's
machinery is being assembled with limited but growing foreign help. The Assad
regime faces a hopeless dilemma. Continued or still harsher repression will
lead to more defections from the army, stronger opposition and greater
likelihood of foreign intervention. On the other hand, easing repression will
be seen as a sign of weakness and embolden the opposition.
The examples of collapsed dictatorships that we've been fortunate to witness
over the past few decades suggest that the disintegration is not apparent to
outsiders and that collapse comes surprisingly swiftly - Eastern Europe, the
Soviet Union, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya.
The end in Damascus is unlikely to be far off and Assad's demise may well come
either from a court decision in the Hague or a pistol shot in Damascus.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The
Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and
Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at
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