Syria, the turning war

Syria's internal stalemate and the wider regional standoff make a political settlement ever more remote. But the military trends are going the jihadist paramilitaries' way.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
15 August 2013

Two years ago, in mid-2011, a widespread view among middle-east analysts was that Bashar al-Assad's regime would not survive the year. The regime's violent repression had lost it credibility across the world, and the protesters against it were gaining strong international support. On the ground there were frequent bomb-attacks against regime targets, while a stream of defectors (some high-level) were joining the rebels' ranks.

The regime, however, managed to regroup and regain a degree of power over the  next eighteen months. In this it was helped by Russia and Iran, as well as by the broadly sympathetic Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad. By mid-April 2013, just four months ago, the dominant view had changed: the regime was now seen as having proved unexpectedly robust. The conclusion was not that it would survive in the long term, but that the bitter civil war had produced a form of stability underpinned by the actions of external proxies. Russia and Iran were not prepared to allow Damascus to fall; Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States and some western European states would not allow the rebels to be defeated. The result of this "proxy war" was stalemate.

Since April 2013, the regime has had some military successes. Yet it has also faced two problems: the financial costs of paying for the war and keeping some semblance of an economy going, and the loss of a major airbase in northern Syria. The financial issue is serious if not crippling (see “Bullets and bank accounts“, Economist, 10 August 2013), but the loss of the base has a much wider importance than has so far been appreciated.

The Minnagh facility was besieged by rebels in October 2012, and was finally overrun on 5 August 2013. In itself this may not be a major setback, but three aspects of it - the persistence of the rebel forces, their background, and the weapons they were able to use - are significant.

In a standoff lasting almost six months, the airbase could be resupplied only by parachute- drop; inevitably some of the intended aid landed in rebel-held territory (see Charles Lister, “Militants overrun Syrian airbase”, Jane's Defence Weekly, 14 August 2013). Towards the end of the siege the rebels were able to use anti-tank guided weapons (ATGW) and even some tanks, the former among transfers from abroad and the latter being captured government stock. At the very end, though, the siege was brought to a conclusion by a series of suicide-bomb attacks against perimeter defences; those involved were mainly foreign fighters, with Saudis most prominent.

The changing war

The central role of jihadist paramilitaries in the operation is a notable part of the capture of Minnagh. In fact, these groups are coming to dominate the civil war as a whole. The same Jane's Defence Weekly article says: “Every major offensive in the region has been announced, led and coordinated by Islamists. This is also increasingly the case elsewhere in the country.”

Alongside the expanding role of Islamist paramilitaries in the war, are three further trends. The first is the greater supply of modern weapons, anti-armour missiles, to these paramilitaries. The weapons now include supplies from Sudan, paid for by Qatar, and reportedly moved by Ukrainian transport-aircraft to an airfield in Turkey and thence into northern Syria (see C J Chivers & Eric Schmitt, “Arms Shipments Seen from Sudan to Syria Rebels”, New York Times, 12 August 2013).

The second is the rapid rise in the number of foreign fighters joining the Islamist groups among the rebels. Total numbers are uncertain and range from United States estimates of 6,000 (see Anne Barnaed & Eric Schmitt, “Syria risks being extremist haven as fighters flow in”, International Herald Tribune, 10 August 2013) through to a Lebanese government source that gives a figure of 17,000 (see Liz Sly, “Al-Qaeda expands in Syria via Islamic State”, Washington Post, 13 August 2013)  Both calculations indicate a foreign involvement at least as large as that which joined the war against the Americans in Iraq in 2004-07.

The third factor relates specifically to Iraq and is the rapidly increasing involvement of the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Paramilitary fighters from this substantial group have greatly increased their presence in Syria, joining in with some (though not all) the Syrian Islamist groups.

The dangerous future

All this means that the Syrian civil war has entered a new phase which essentially pitches the Alawi-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad against Islamist paramilitaries, with the more secular elements of the rebellion becoming far less important. This in no way diminishes the proxy nature of the war but it is likely substantially to diminish support offered by western countries to the rebels, meaning that the role of Qatar and (especially) Saudi Arabia is becoming even more central to the war.

This argument was made in an earlier column in this series (see "Syria's war, a new phase", 13 June 2013).  Since then, more effective weapons have been arrived in the hands of the Islamist groups and  the ISIL connection has been revealed. These developments are still in their early stages, and their full impact yet to be known. But they imply that the war will have many months if not years to run, and that its most likely outcome is a divided Syria in which significant territory and centres of population will come under Islamist governance. The only way to avoid this would be to include the centres of power in Riyadh and Doha, as well as Tehran, in a major diplomatic effort.

Barack Obama's administration has been focusing on Yemen as a prime area of al-Qaida-related activity. That analysis is already beginning to look thoroughly dated. The United States will neglect what is happening in Syria to its cost.

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