Intervention now seems the only and the most likely to succeed path to ousting the Assadist regime. Heavily outgunned, the Free Syrian Army will continue its pattern of attempting to hold cities without success, until more moderate members are sidelined and extremists take the reins. There seems to be a definite and clear path to an Afghanization of the FSA’s campaign.
The only way to turn the tide against the Assadist forces is by both equipping the FSA with heavier weaponry, and providing the FSA with greater support in the form of eventual intervention by aerial and some ground forces.
Al Assad’s chief advantages over the rebels are in the armoured protection of his tanks, the speed of his aircraft, and the range of his artillery (which cannot be effectively neutralized without air support).
While some help (such as Steyr AUG rifles from Saudi Arabia, body armor, radios and medical equipment from NATO) has been forthcoming, this has fallen short of what the FSA needs to start to change the strategic situation.
Up against heavy armour and aircraft, it is natural that the FSA requires anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, as well as heavy machine guns, and mortars. Acknowledging this, a French diplomatic source said that the French government was considering giving the FSA heavy weaponry.
These weapons are much more difficult to smuggle in, and far more expensive than the light arms currently being sent. If captured by the Syrian regime they could be quickly turned against the FSA.
Supplying the FSA, and thereby winning the war against the Assadists is a matter of logistics. Since the aerial supply of the Libyan war cannot be emulated without air superiority (ie an aerial intervention), any effort to supply heavy weapons must be concentrated in areas that are directly on the most willing border to supply the rebels (that is, the Turkish border) and where the rebels control crossings to ensure the arrival of the weapons. Supply lines must be short to begin with in order to maintain a fast, secure and controllable transit of arms.
Once the weapons have arrived, it will be important to ensure that the FSA can safely and effectively employ them with acceptable results. In order to support this initiative, foreign powers reluctant to supply personnel could find a useful alternative in authorizing private military companies (PMCs) to support the FSA through training and the use of its heavy weapons. Private military companies will usually have veteran operators that are well-versed in complex heavy weapons and their proper use, and the use of these operatives does not oblige a reluctant government to send in its own troops. One chief problem with this approach will be that the Assadist regime would use this as evidence that ‘foreign mercenaries’ are being used against it.
The key challenge in the entire arrangement is proliferation. The panic over the Afghan stocks of stinger missiles of the 1980s cannot be entertained again and is a barrier to getting the FSA the equipment that it needs.
Gathering more detailed intelligence on the rebel factions will allow selectiveness in the choice of who can be supplied with heavy weapons. It will give a greater fighting chance to factions that have more moderate views and would play an important part in shaping post-Assadist Syria.
Responsibility agreements for arms would designate a single FSA individual as well as the militia as solely responsible for a piece of equipment, as is done in regular militaries. Individuals would be identified, and subject to interviews, and profiling (such as retinal and fingerprint scans) would take place as well as a vetting system.
Attaching GPS units to arms and supplying them with complex fail-safe switches would ensure that the location of these heavy weapons is known and that they can be located and gathered more efficiently. Satellite technology as well as drones could be used to monitor the arms and make sure that they are not being used in ways that run counter to the maintenance of longer-term regional security. This would also allow the involved foreign powers to track the progress of the FSA.
An additional step that can be used is to provide weapons with NATO
calibres whose ammunition cannot be bought easily on the black market, unlike their
‘Warsaw Pact’ equivalents.
Combined with a buyback scheme (a buyback scheme was effective in making sure that the Afghan stingers did not end up in the wrong hands) this could ensure that relatively few weapons are proliferated.
While it may sound counterintuitive, giving the FSA the equipment it
needs to effectively fight this war is an important step to improving long-term regional
security. As was seen in Iraq, a long, drawn out guerilla war would eventually
lead to attacks on ‘softer’ targets, higher civilian casualties, and could lead the conflict to become sectarianized, which would be felt long after the
eventual overthrow of Al Assad. The international community must also not allow
the FSA to reach out to more extremist factions for help, as this would ensure
that Syria would become a breeding ground for terrorism. A Syria where Bashar
Al Assad has won, or where he has been defeated without external support after
a longer and bloodier civil war will not be one built on strong foundations.
Heavier weapons will be unlikely to win the war alone, as the FSA requires the support of NATO-GCC airpower in order to begin taking and holding terrain sustainably, and to counter the aforementioned Assadist superiority in artillery. But giving the FSA the tools it needs to reverse Al Assad’s technological superiority is a good start. We must make sure that Al Assad thinks twice before he sends his tanks to raze Homs or his helicopter gunships to bomb Aleppo.