The Battle for Syria
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|Jonathan D. Halevi||December 21st 2012|
The moment of truth is approaching in Syria. In an interview with the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, published on December 17, Syria’s vice president, Farouq al-Shara, admitted for the first time that the war against the Syrian rebels could not be won: “I do not believe that what the security forces and the army units are doing will achieve a decisive victory.”
The rebel forces, led by allied jihadist groups, have the upper hand on the battlefield, and scored significant achievements when they took over a large military base in Aleppo well stocked with weapons and ammunition, and later in fierce fighting in communities surrounding the capital city of Damascus including the Yarmouk Palstinian refugee camp. The Free Syrian Army is now claiming to have gained control of most of the air defense bases in the Damascus Governate.
Bashar Assad’s regime is fighting a rearguard battle and has already lost control over large parts of the country, which are still being subjected to aerial and artillery attacks by Syrian army forces still loyal to the regime. Assad continues to draw his strength from the Alawite community, which forms the backbone of the army, and from the political, military, and economic assistance he receives from Russia, Syria, Iran, and Hizbullah. The latter two have also sent forces to help with the fighting both in advisory and operational capacities.
The sense that the end is approaching was expressed by Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who acknowledged that Assad’s regime is losing control of the country and a rebel takeover may be imminent. While Russia has not changed its policy on the official level, it too appears prepared to safeguard its interests should the regime collapse.
A political turning point occurred when the United States recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the sole and exclusive representative of the Syrian people. The U.S. and other Western countries, as well as the bloc of Arab and Muslim states that support the rebels, have an interest in building up a national leadership that can unite the rebel forces under its command and serve as a legitimate temporary government, thereby ensuring a stable transition period and the continued geographic and governmental coherence of Syria.
Implications of the Final Stage
With the Syrian crisis entering its final stage, what follows are the main implications.
To begin with, Assad’s regime has long since lost its legitimacy to rule, and at most can survive for a further period through the growing use of firepower that is meant to inflict large-scale casualties among the rebels and the civilian population that supports them.
The rebels’ takeover of large parts of Aleppo will likely precipitate a final collapse of the army’s rule in the area. This will add momentum to similar processes in northern Syria, further enabling the mobilization and organization of forces for the decisive battle in Damascus – if the campaign being waged at present does not achieve a breakthrough.
In attacking rebel forces and the Syrian population, the Syrian army has seen fit to use all the weapons in its arsenal except for chemical weapons. Strong messages on this issue from the United States and other Western countries, indicating that the use of such weapons will prompt Western military intervention expressly aimed at toppling the regime, have acted as a deterrent.
It is unlikely under the prevailing circumstances that Assad’s regime believes the use of chemical weapons can restore the previous situation in Syria, even if very heavy losses are inflicted on the civilian population. It appears probable that, should Damascus soon fall into rebel hands, the regime will instead seek to transfer most of the surviving loyal forces and strategic (including chemical) weaponry to the area of the Alawite enclave in the west of the country. These weapons would then serve as a deterrent to acts of revenge and a political card for ensuring the Alawite community’s status in a future Syrian order.
The Syrian National Coalition has indeed won international recognition and projects a moderate image for the Syrian opposition. The reality, however, is much more complex. The rebel forces regard the new leadership of the opposition as having been imposed on them, and are prepared at most to accept it as a temporary actor that can mobilize the international support needed to complete the endeavor of toppling the regime.
The Dominant Forces in Syria
In actuality, the dominant forces in Syria are the military frameworks that have waged the campaign against the regime since the revolution erupted in March 2011. These military frameworks, which enjoy great popular support, will likely demand their part in the new government and make their imprint on the shaping of the new Syria.
An analysis of the fighting forces’ ideological underpinnings shows that the overwhelming majority, if not all, espouse an Islamist, jihadist, Salafist outlook at different degrees of fervor. Their common denominator is a desire to establish a new Syria that is ruled by the Sunni Muslim majority and defines itself first and foremost as an Islamic state.
The Jahbat al-Nusra organization, which is identified with the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, is considered one of the most powerful forces among the rebels and enjoys extensive popular sympathy both because of its battlefield achievements and the aid it provides to the population. A few days after the United States decided to add it to the list of terrorist organizations, there were mass demonstrations of support for the organization in Syria in the name of all the fighting forces, under the banner: “There Is No Terror in Syria But Assad’s Terror.” Despite its international connections, even the Syrian National Coalition rejected the U.S. decision to classify Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. This full backing for a branch of al-Qaeda against the U.S. and the West likely indicates the future direction of the Syrian revolution, which appears ready to adopt Islamism as the main basis of the government that will replace the Assad regime.
Under the surface in Syria, two major Islamic forces are active: the Muslim Brotherhood via Turkey, and Hizb ut-Tahrir, which calls for the immediate creation of an Islamic caliphate. Officially, the Muslim Brotherhood has no fighting forces acting under its name. According to testimonies, however, some of the semi-military frameworks set up over the past two years are identified with the movement, and it controls numerous sources of financial aid from the Gulf states and thereby wields influence among the rebel forces. The Brotherhood is likely to take a higher profile after the revolution achieves its ends, and to strive, with the help of Turkey and Egypt, to unite all the Islamic factions under its leadership.
The overriding goal of the new regime, with Turkey’s support, will be to maintain Syria’s geographic coherence and prevent its division on an ethnic/religious (Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, and Druze) basis. So far the rebel forces, except for specific acts of vengeance, have avoided massacres of the Alawite population. They want to leave an escape hatch for Alawite officers and soldiers who will encourage others to desert, thereby hastening the army’s collapse. Such restraint will not necessarily remain after the regime collapses, with not a few voices among the rebels already calling for retribution. One possible solution for the new situation is an eventual Syrian federation that would extend limited autonomous rights to the minority groups.
The revolution in Syria has greatly depleted the Syrian army. The rebel forces, for their part, are hostile to Israel and reiterate calls to extend the jihad from Damascus to the liberation of Jerusalem. At present all their resources are directed at overthrowing the Assad regime. After that is accomplished, a potential military-terrorist threat to Israel will likely emerge in the transition period, which will be marked by governmental instability and a lack of central control over at least some of the fighting forces. The jihadist forces in Syria have taken over the Syrian military’s stocks of weapons, like in the Libyan case after the fall of Gaddafi. This could pose a serious security challenge to Western interests in the future.
A Blow to Iran
The fall of Assad, Tehran’s close ally, will be a harsh blow to Iran’s interests in the Middle East and could cause further shockwaves that weaken Iran’s influence even more. That pertains particularly to the Lebanese arena, where the Sunni Islamist forces are already organizing for the day after Assad’s fall in a push to alter Lebanon’s political and military balance of power, in which Hizbullah is now dominant. The collapse of the Syrian hinterland will likely spark violent clashes that could escalate to a civil war in Lebanon between the radical Sunni forces and Hizbullah. In Iraq, which has been under increasing Iranian domination after the U.S. withdrawal, Iraqi Sunnis will likely look to their Sunni allies in a post-Assad Syria in order to renew the insurgency campaign against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
At present the rebel forces view Iran, Russia, and China as partners in crime for fully backing the Assad regime. It is, however, undoubtedly possible that ties with them will be rehabilitated in the longer term. Russia has a major interest in maintaining its influence in Syria, and will likely play the card of banishment of Assad and his comrades in trying to pave a path to the rebels’ hearts. Although the animosity toward Iran has an ideological basis, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown that it ascribed supreme strategic importance to relations with Iran even while massacres were being perpetrated in Syria; the common interest is to counter Western influence in the Middle East and build a front against Israel. These considerations are likely to guide the new regime in Damascus.
The Power Centers in the Rebel Camp
Jahbat al-Nusra La’al al-Sham (the Assistance Front to the Residents of Greater Syria) is an Islamic organization identified with al-Qaeda and under the command of Muhammad al-Julani. Over the past year it has extended both its ranks and the scope of its activity, which includes suicide bombings. The United States aims to include it in the list of terrorist organizations.
The Sukur al-Sham Brigade (Hawks of Greater Syria) is an Islamic organization under the command of Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh, mainly active in northern Syria. It operates in a hierarchical, unified military structure with nine battalions active in different areas.
The Ahrar al-Sham Battalions (Freemen of Greater Syria) is a Salafist Islamic organization operating in northern Syria, in the region of Damascus and its surrounding villages, and in the south. Its declared goal is to implement shari’a law in Syria.
The Al-Tawhid Brigade (Uniqueness of Allah) is an Islamic organization under the command of Abd al-Kadr al-Salah. It is active mainly in the Aleppo area and is identified with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Tamoah Ansar al-Islam (Union of Supporters of Islam) is a Salafist Islamic organization that calls for the establishment of a caliphate. Formed in August 2012, it unites under its aegis armed groups that are mainly active in the Damascus area.
The Al-Farouk Brigades is a Salafist Islamic organization active in northern and central Syria.
Two umbrella organizations for coordinating among the fighting forces were set up last year in Syria: the Rebel Front in Syria and the Front for the Liberation of Syria. These are dominant among the Islamic organizations.
At the start of December 2012, a joint military leadership for the rebel forces was set up under the command of Brig.-Gen. Salim Idris. Five areas of command were created under the new military leadership’s control. Its declared ideological line includes an Islamic Syrian identity and upholding human and minority rights. But not all the rebel forces accept the new military leadership’s authority.
Jonathan D. Halevi, Senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs; co-founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. and is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.