Recent events and news reports have revealed the military character of the fighting in Syria. They make it possible to assess the likely course and outcome of the war.
Especially significant are accounts of Syrian troops holed up in their bases in the countryside, unable to move about except in armoured vehicles. Some bases are apparently only being resupplied by helicopter. What’s even more demoralising for the Syrian army are reports that the rebels now have effective anti-tank weapons. It appears that Syrian tanks and other armoured vehicles are being taken out of action by home-made improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as well as by more advanced weaponry provided by foreign backers.
In rural areas, these developments mean that the rebels can effectively control large swathes of territory with relatively weak forces. Confining regular forces to bases is a dire sign for the government in any insurgency. The authorities no longer govern much of the population, and can no longer extract taxes and recruits from it.
However, Syrian forces are likely to become even more murderous when they do venture out of their laagers. They will regard everyone outside their own units and regime-friendly areas as potential enemies. There are reports of regime tanks firing their machine guns into buildings as they race by.
Notably, the forces of “Free Syria” have demonstrated an ability to strike into the heart of Syria’s great cities. The fighting in Damascus and Aleppo is a sure sign of the growing military capabilities of the rebels. Along with the assassination of four senior officials, there can be no more stark indicators that the days of the Assad regime are numbered.
|Syria: Fighting rages in Damascus and Aleppo
However, rebel commanders must remember that even with their new found power, they cannot stand against the concentrated forces of the regime. They must become expert at the timely tactical withdrawal, to preserve their forces to fight again the next day.
Trying to hold territory is a great temptation for any insurgency. Local rebel militia are especially prone to this error because they fear abandoning their families to the regime. Fighters also make a stand because in any combat there is an innate yearning on each side to win, especially after blood has been spilled.
Yet, against superior force, the only outcome of the desire to stand and fight is defeat and the loss of experienced fighters and their weapons. This means that friendly population is a double edged sword for the rebels. One the one hand, they provide all manner of support; on the other, trying to protect them leads to military disaster. Rebel commanders must work to mitigate the disadvantages, and to communicate intentions and best courses of action to civilians, who should be told to flee when necessary.
Viewing these developments, commentators in the West are raising the spectre of “Bosnia”. By this they mean the dissolution of a multi-ethnic country into warring ethnic cantonments. The West, of course, is prone to blame others for this outcome: It is the Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic who is being tried in The Hague for his war crimes.
However, the ethnic division and slaughter in Bosnia were a joint production between the ethnic paramilitaries and the UN. It was the efforts to achieve ceasefire and protect civilians that locked in place the ethnic division of the country. The US-sponsored Dayton accords ratified the ethnic separatism of the paramilitaries, completing their work for them.
Those who believe in a free Syria for all Syrians can work to avert these outcomes in their own country. First, they must ensure that the rebels are multi-ethnic and multi-denominational. Alawites and Christians, Sunni and Shia, all must have their place in the rebel ranks. Any discrimination must be strictly punished – and in public – especially when against Alawites, the sect to which Assad and his family belong.
One outcome of such a policy – if it is pursued effectively and aggressively – is that Alawite troops and other regime supporters will see that they have the option to defect and escape the regime’s bloody last stand.
Each defection removes one more iota of military power from the regime and makes it that much easier to defeat.
Secondly, and more importantly, Free Syria must resist the temptations of the UN, the siren songs of the human rights community, and the diplomacy of those such as Kofi Annan. They desire only to stop the fighting, believing that the worst evil is war, not Assad and his murderous regime.
Free Syria! War is your friend and victory is the solution.
The way to ensure the territorial integrity and future strength and prosperity of Syria is for a united rebel army to finish off Assad and his regime dead-enders. This may take some time, more hard fighting and much tragic loss. But any ceasefire will simply freeze in place the division of the country. It will ensure either a continued civil war fought on the slow burn or that Syria becomes a weak and divided country, a plaything of its neighbours and of the great powers.
Victory requires unity and that is the main task confronting the Free Syrian Army and its political backers. A front policy that includes all groups and sectors of society, and offers something for everyone is the only way forward. The leadership must remember also that while it should take all weapons and assistance on offer from foreign backers, it should make no deals regarding the eventual character of the Syrian government and economy.
The Syrian people alone must determine their future.
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.