Syria's war, a new phase

The balance of forces in Syria's conflict in favour of Damascus is creating a dangerous regional dynamic. This puts wise diplomacy at a premium.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
13 June 2013

The conflict that broke out in Syria has gone through several phases since it began in the early months of 2011. The process has continued in the first half of 2013. What is happening in Syria now poses grave questions to leading regional and global powers, not least the United States.

On the ground, the fighting is as bitter and destructive as ever. In the second week of June 2013 alone, the suicide-bombing of a police station in Damascus by anti-Assad forces killed both police and civilians; rebels are reported to have inflicted more than sixty deaths in Hatla, following an attack on their positions that may have originated from that village; and a regime helicopter fired missiles at the Lebanese town of Arsal, used as a staging-post for getting supplies into Syria (and host to some 20,700 Syrian refugees).

Behind such everyday incidents of deaths, injuries and destruction, the general assessment is that the war has moved in favour of Bashar al-Assad's regime. The loss of the strategic town of Al-Qusayr on 5 June - where Syria's Lebanese ally Hizbollah was heavily involved, and where as many as 400 rebels were killed - is an indicator of this. There are now reports that the regime's forces are being prepared for an assault on rebel forces in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

There is a marked shift in perceptions here. In June 2011, exactly two years ago, regular announcements of senior defections from Damascus and of assassinations of key regime figures encouraged the view that the Assad regime was moving towards implosion. The dominant view now is that Damascus holds the upper hand, and this will be reinforced if Assad loyalists do move successfully against Aleppo's rebel strongholds.

A Damascus tilt

The regime advance reflects four important aspects of the battle. First, there are deep divisions among the rebel forces. Many small militias are fighting in a largely uncoordinated manner, often with limited supplies of arms, and engaging in pillage of the towns and villages they occupy. The more Islamist groups are an exception to this pattern, especially in north-east Syria; there, the various factions are working more closely together and have acquired a reputation for bringing order, however strict.

Second, the contribution of well-trained Hizbollah paramilitaries is significant. Third, the rebels have made crucial military misjudgments. At Al-Qusayr, for example, the rebel decision to mount a major defence with only light arms available enabled the regime - using its dominant firepower (artillery, tanks, helicopter-gunships and strike-aircraft) great  - to mount an operation that devastated the town. The rebels could instead have withdrawn and relied on guerrilla tactics to disrupt their enemy; this, though, would have contradicted their repeated (and politically-driven) claim to be able to hold territory.

Fourth, the Assad regime has learnt from the experience of twenty-seven months of war in two ways. One is the decision in April 2013 to establish national defence forces (NDF) comprising volunteer militias. Their function is limited - to provide defence of their immediate localities - but the effect is to free up regular Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces for offensive actions (see Jeremy Binnie, “Syrian rebel bid to hold Al-Qasayr ends in retreat”, Jane's Defence Weekly, 12 June 2013). The other is the decision to combine different elements of the armed forces, especially army and air-force units, into more tight operating structures.

Even these four processes, though, do not mean that victory is imminent. There is, for example, always the risk of a spectacular assassination. And if Assad's regime has become more effective, it has little chance of regaining control of the whole country - and certainly not those parts of Syria where the Islamists predominate.

The Saudi factor

At the same time, a wider political dynamic is now emerging: the relative success Iran has gained in the whole process, which has been aided by cooperation from Nouri al-Maliki's government in Iraq (see Liz Sly, “Iran emerging as victor in Syrian conflict”, Washington Post, 12 June 2013). This explains France and Britain's calls to arm the rebels, a prospect now unlikely  but such arming from Europe or the United States is currently unlikely. For its part, the United States is concerned that any advanced weapons might reach the Islamist paramilitaries - and may even have discouraged the Qataris from funding the latter. Obama's administration, with the experience of Afghanistan, Iraq and even Libya in mind - with all their unexpected consequences - is also most reluctant to consider no-fly zones or other forms of intervention.

Many are making a basic calculation: more arms to the rebels means more arms from Russia and Iran to Assad - and far more people getting killed. The war will therefore continue, mixing greater control by the regime with overall stalemate.

Yet this leaves an unpredictable and potentially dangerous factor unresolved: the role of Saudi Arabia. The monarchy in Riyadh, with its longstanding mistrust of Iran, deplores Iran's advantage and sees it as a warning of further threats. It is conceivable that as a result, the Saudis will be far more aggressive in procuring sophisticated weapons for the rebels, including the Islamists to whom they are ideologically close.

That will alarm Washington even more than Qatar's aid to the rebels. It is a real possibility that Riyadh - more than London, Paris, Washington or Moscow - will dictate what happens in Syria in coming months. A high level of committed diplomacy and good sense involving Russia and the United States might be the only way to avert this. Meanwhile, the pain and ruin in Syria continue.

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