Bloody new campaign to oust
Assad By Brian M Downing
A new chapter in the Syrian resurrection
is opening in the form of a wave of bombings. It
comes on the heels of the Free Syrian Army's (FSA)
failure to mount a significant defense of key
cities and the outside powers' indecision as to
what to do beyond sanctions and diplomacy. The
bombing campaign is decisive, bold and portentous.
Its authorship is unclear, but signs point to Iraq
and Saudi Arabia.
The Syrian opposition
last autumn bruited the rise of the FSA - a force
of defectors from the army and civilian
volunteers. It was thought they'd form an
effective opposition to President Bashar
al-Assad's government 's forces, much as the
Libyan militias did in time.
Over the past
few weeks, however, Assad's army has
systematically and rather easily reduced the
strongholds in Homs,
Idlib and Deraa. FSA resistance was token at best.
Nor was it able to put up attacks elsewhere to
draw off regular troops and interdict convoys to
besieged cities. Today, it engages in occasional
skirmishes and sets up short-lived roadblocks on
Efforts by defectors to lure away
friends and relatives serving in the regular army
have had only limited success. Assad's army is
largely intact and has sufficient cohesion and
skill to prevent the sort of defeat that Muammar
Gaddafi faced in Libya.
The repression has
been performed by security forces and elite army
units whose sectarian and political loyalties are
largely above question and likely more steadfast
than in non-elite units. The reliability of much
of the army is in at least some doubt. If the
insurrection flares and requires the use of
non-elite units, defections may increase and
become problematic for Assad.
Assad has a
new problem. With the FSA crushed and the shadow
government in disarray, a bombing campaign has
opened. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have
struck army convoys and car bombs have struck
Aleppo, Deraa and most recently the capital
Damascus. Though such bombings have taken place
over the previous six months, the past two weeks
have been especially noteworthy and lethal.
There is no compelling evidence of who if
anyone is directing the campaign. The opposition
blames the Assad regime, but the government has no
interest in underscoring an image of helplessness
in the face of bombings. The regime blames the
opposition and points to their ties to world
terrorism, but the opposition purports to eschew
More importantly, however, the
opposition has shown little ability to accomplish
much of anything inside Syria, let alone direct a
concerted bombing effort in several cities.
Bombmaking, while seemingly random and anarchic
and requiring neither organization nor skill, is a
distinct craft, as are setting up IEDs along
convoy routes and recruiting and training suicide
Those talents have been
repeatedly and chillingly demonstrated just to
Syria's east, in Iraq, and suspicion might well
fall on the Sunni insurgents there. They fought
the US with such methods and have more recently
set loose a bombing campaign against Shi'ite
targets in Iraqi cities. They may have imparted
their talents to Syrians impatient with FSA
limitations and livid over army repression.
Alternately, they themselves are operating inside
Syria, perhaps at the behest of Gulf states.
During the anti-US insurgency, Sunni
fighters used Syria as a haven and brought
supplies and foreign fighters through it. Hundreds
of thousands of Sunni Iraqis fled to Syria as the
insurgency raged and their dominance of the
Shi'ites ended. They have maintained ties back
home and now see an opportunity to exact revenge
upon the Shi'ites and their Persian backers by
ousting Assad, an Alawite Shi'ite and ally of
Iran. Tribal, familial, military and Salafi
networks straddle the Syrian-Iraqi frontier.
The goal of ousting Assad, and perhaps the
means as well, have broad support in the region,
chiefly to the south in the Gulf. Hostility to
Iran has flared since the Arab Spring unrest in
Gulf countries was, on little evidence, attributed
to Iranian intelligence operations.
crisis over Iran's nuclear program has worsened
matters, giving hostility the feel of an obsession
- one that their attention and considerable wealth
must resolve, regardless of Western counsel and
Support from the Gulf
states seek to detach Syria from Iran thereby
breaking the Shi'ite arc that extends from Iran
through post-Saddam Hussein Iraq then into Syria
and Hezbollah-ruled Lebanon. Their goal has far
less to do with the regional push for democracy
than to the struggle for mastery of the Persian
Gulf. In the absence of an effective FSA to oust
Assad, a bombing campaign may have to do.
The bombings may firm support for the
Assad regime as the specter of Syrian cities
resembling Fallujah and Baghdad begins to loom.
But opposition to Assad is too widespread and deep
to mute the opposition.
the United States and the European Union see
another specter: Assad's sizable arsenal of
chemical weapons and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft
missiles falling into the hands of Iraqi
militants, Salafi militants, and various merchants
of dubious scruples.
This brings to mind
the admission of a Saudi intelligence director who
said that his organization wasn't very good at
conducting operations; its forte was writing
Those grim prospects will fire
the concerns of more responsible outside powers
who are less obsessed with the Saudi-Persian
rivalry and sectarian squabbles than are their
Gulf-state allies. These powers will not call off
the mission to oust Assad. There's little more
that sanctions and diplomacy can bring.
These powers may further their efforts to
make the FSA into an effective fighting force,
with conventional formations seeking to establish
bastions in cities and mountainous areas and
guerrilla formations seeking various targets of
opportunity. Meanwhile, the specter hangs over
Quoted in Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix
Kuehn, An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the
Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan,
1970-2010. (London: Hurst Publications, 2012),
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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