Arab World: Taking Center Stage / Jonathan Spyer
February 5, 2012
The diplomatic route to change in Syria is firmly blocked. Russia, for its own reasons, is refusing and will continue to refuse to allow any resolution promising serious action against the regime of President Bashar Assad to pass in the United Nations Security Council.
The US, as was made clear by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks this week, will do all it can to avoid embroilment in a new Middle Eastern war. The status of 2012 as a presidential election year will serve to further entrench the default position of this administration against new entanglements in our chaotic neighborhood.
Yet despite the diplomatic deep freeze, the situation is not static.
Significant changes are taking place on the ground. All of them are to the Assad regime’s disadvantage. The most important are concerned with the growing prominence, cohesion and power of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Civil wars are rarely announced or declared. It is thus not always easy to set a date marking their beginning. In many ways, Syria has been in a state of low-intensity civil war since the first emergence of armed resistance to Assad in the summer of 2011. But late January 2012 is likely to be remembered as the time when armed conflict between Syrians began in earnest.
In recent weeks, it has become clear that the disparate gathering of guerrillas known as the Free Syrian Army has greater capabilities than was hitherto supposed. The FSA is now holding the town of Zabadani, not far from the Lebanon border, which it has turned into a mini “Free Syria.” It is also maintaining positions across the Turkish border in the Idlib province in northern Syria.
The force evidently felt confident enough this week to take a number of journalists with it across the border into its positions in Idlib, from where they reported on the fighting. This largely Sunni province is the heartland of the FSA, with a reported 700 fighters present in Idlib city.
For a long period, reports suggested that the FSA was a semi-fictitious body, consisting of poorly-equipped, sparsely supplied groups of army deserters with little or no central coordination and a notional leadership. Few would make this claim in light of the events of the past two weeks.
Yet it would still be entirely wrong to begin to relate to the organization as a potential challenger for power in the short to medium term.
The FSA has at most around 20,000 fighters. The regime can still lay claim to just under 300,000, including its security services and Alawi irregulars. The rebels have no armor, no artillery, and a rudimentary logistical infrastructure.
FSA commanders live a hemmed-in life in a compound near Antakya in Turkey, close to the border. Turkey is domiciling the organization but keeps its operatives under close control. Ankara understands that for the FSA, the establishment of a buffer zone in northern Syria is a major demand and would be a major achievement. But the Turks have no desire to be drawn into possible clashes with the Syrians because of an over-zealous heating up of the border by the FSA.
Hence the tight control, which extends to contacts with the media.
The BBC had to conduct a recent interview with FSA leader Col. Riyad Asaad via Skype, after being denied entrance to his compound by the Turkish authorities.
The movement maintains a small cadre of activists in Istanbul who meet directly with journalists.
Sources close to the organization noted that they expect the regime to re-take Zabadani at some stage and that the movement knows it cannot yet hope to hold any area against a frontal assault by regime forces.
This week, Assad’s forces pushed back against the FSA, driving the rebels from neighborhoods they had occupied in the eastern suburbs of Damascus – with considerable loss of life. The regime’s artillery is also pounding the FSA’s strongholds in Homs city, Rastan and Idlib province.
Despite all this, conversations with sources close to the FSA this week revealed high morale and determination. They are still calling for a no-fly zone and a buffer area, a la Benghazi. But with all eyes on the UN Security Council this week, there is little hope that such demands will reach fruition. The Free Syrian Army is nevertheless elated by its growing ability to hold ground, at least for a while, and to continue to strike at Assad’s men.
The army claims that large parts of Syria have now become inaccessible to regime forces except where entered with maximum force. This is important. A regime that can only travel in convoy through some parts of its own country is a regime whose rule is no longer complete.
The FSA also derives hope from an accelerating rate of defections from Assad’s forces and a sharp decline in the number of troops that the beleaguered Syrian dictator can call on and rely on.
This week, a Syrian general and former commander of the feared Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence, Mahmoud Halouf, was reported by regional media to have defected with 300 of his troops.
A guerrilla war of attrition appears to be commencing in Syria.
As the diplomacy grinds on and the slaughter by the regime of protesters continues, the armed campaign to destroy the dictator is moving to center stage. Victory looks distant. The Free Syrian Army, nevertheless, gives every impression of believing firmly that it will one day succeed.
About Jonathan Spyer
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Masters' Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He served in a front-line unit of the Israel Defense Forces in 1992-3, and fought in the war in Lebanon in summer 2006. Between 1996 and 2000, Spyer was an employee of the Israel Prime Minister's Office.