Wounded Syrian regime fights back

Saturday, July 28th, 2012




The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be mortally wounded, but its rule is not yet over. This is the grim message reinforced by armored columns rolling into the major cities, and of relentless air and artillery strikes on the capital Damascus and the commercial heart of the country, the northern city Aleppo.

Assad tried to stick to the narrative that national unity could be salvaged by appointing three Sunni Muslims, all of them his hardline supporters, to fill in for the security chiefs who were assassinated last week.

“The notorious Rustum Ghazali, who ruled Lebanon with an iron fist, is among them,” the prominent Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, Joshua Landis, wrote in his blog. “This is an effort to keep the Sunni-Alawi alliance alive. Baathist rule has been built on the Sunni-Alawi alliance, which has all but collapsed since the

beginning of the uprising. The defections of high level Sunnis recently underscores that it is moribund.”

The influential American-based intelligence analysis organization Stratfor concurs with the conclusion that despite all his efforts, Assad’s days are numbered. “We have argued that so long as the military and security apparatus remain intact and effective, the regime could endure,” Stratfor wrote in a recent analysis. “Although they continue to function, neither appears intact any longer; their control of key areas such as Damascus and Aleppo is in doubt, and the reliability of their personnel, given defections, is no longer certain … The regime has not unraveled, but it is unraveling”. [1]

Nor does the option of Assad retreating to some sort of an Alawite “rump state” seem particularly viable. Some commentators have suggested that such a state could center around the Western port city of Latakia, a traditional Alawite stronghold (to see a map of the Syrian conflict, click here). A recent report in Abu Dhabi’s The National, for example, argues that an accompanying process of brutal identity-based cleansing may already have started.

“Recent attacks, such as the massacre on July 12 in the village of Tremseh, appeared calculated to push Sunnis in western Syria out of their traditional homes and east, away from potential Alawite strongholds,” the newspaper writes. “The theory runs that the Assad regime plans to push fearful Sunnis out of the areas west of Homs and Hama, which both remain Sunni-majority cities.” [2]

However, the long-term sustainability of such a state is almost as questionable as the methods that may be implemented to usher it in. As Joshua Landis writes in a separate blog post,

Most importantly, an Alawite state is indefensible. Alawite shabiha (thugs) and brigades of special forces may fall back to the Alawite Mountains when Damascus is lost. But how long could they last? As soon as Syria’s Sunni militias unite, as presumably they will, they would make hasty work of any remaining Alawite resistance. Whoever owns Damascus and the central state will own the rest of Syria in short order. They will have the money, they will have legitimacy, and they will have international support. Syria could not survive without the coast. More importantly, it would not accept to do without the coast and the port cities of Tartus and Latakia. All the coastal cities remain majority Sunni to this day.


For now, nevertheless, Assad seems to have shored up his security apparatus, badly damaged after the urban offensive of the rebels and the high-profile terror attack in Damascus last week. According to most reports, his forces have largely “secured” the capital (where a large but unknown number of bodies have piled up) and are preparing for a decisive offensive in Aleppo. The use of both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft has picked up significantly, and fighter planes are allegedly employed heavily in the government counter-offensive.

Comparisons with Libya are unavoidable even when diplomats seek to distance themselves from them. On Thursday, United States Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed concern during a press conference that “we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that’s what the regime appears to be lining up for”.

She rejected references to the situation in the Libyan city of Benghazi just prior to the aerial campaign against former Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, saying that “There are a vast number of differences,” yet her words suggested that the differences pertain more to Assad’s military strength and foreign backers, as well as to the lack of unity among the opposition, than to the American desire for action. [4]

There are signs of a new initiative to unite the Syrian rebels. It is spearheaded by General Manaf Tlass, dubbed “Syria’s most prominent defector,” who abandoned Assad several weeks ago. Tlass is the scion of a prominent Sunni Muslim family in Syria which until recently was a key pillar of support for the regime. His hands, however, are clean in the current bloodshed, and despite lingering suspicions against him on the part of the opposition, he is seen as its potential leader – perhaps even somebody who could step in for Assad under a hypothetical internationally-backed deal.

“I will try to help as much as I can to unite all the honorable people inside and outside Syria to put together a roadmap to get us out of this crisis, whether there is a role for me or not,” Tlass told the newspaper Asharq Alawsat on Thursday during a visit in Saudi Arabia. His itinerary also reportedly includes Turkey, suggesting that he is trying to secure the backing of the Syrian opposition’s key regional sponsors.

In any case, however, neither rebel unity nor a foreign intervention in Syria appear to be imminent, whereas the decline in rebel momentum could mirror the failed opposition offensive in the city of Homs earlier this year, when speculations that Assad was finished proved similarly premature.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime seems to be implementing a lesson or two of its own from the Libyan case. Whether or not it was involved in any of the recent terror attacks in Bulgaria and elsewhere – Gaddafi also had threatened Europe with terror – Assad appears ready to take the fight into his enemies’ territory, for example by allowing greater Kurdish autonomy in Syria as a way of destabilizing Turkey.

In the last days, the Syrian army reportedly withdrew from at least six Kurdish towns, where a coalition of Kurdish (mostly political) forces took over. The Syrian Kurds are split among themselves, and have allegedly vowed to stay neutral in the civil war, but at least some of them are allied with Assad and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) which is responsible for much of the terror activity in Turkey. The situation in which the PKK would have a base to operate freely in Syria is unpalatable to the Turkish leaders, and mirrors Ankara’s treatment of Assad.

The Turkish attempts in the last months to lure the Kurds by cultivating a close relationship with Iraq’s Kurdish leadership may not work well in Syria, where the regime has enjoyed a long relationship with the PKK. As a Kurdish politician told the web site Rudaw.net, “The areas where these Kurdish factions have raised their flags are those Bashar al-Assad gave to them.” [5]

Reportedly, Western attempts to oust Assad are running aground also on account of deficient intelligence-gathering operations. “Interviews with US and foreign intelligence officials revealed that the CIA has been unable to establish a presence in Syria, in contrast with the agency’s prominent role gathering intelligence from inside Egypt and Libya during revolts in those countries,” the Washington Post wrote on Tuesday. “With no CIA operatives on the ground in Syria and only a handful stationed at key border posts, the agency has been heavily dependent on its counterparts in Jordan and Turkey and on other regional allies.” [6]

If the report is accurate, this would be a new illustration of the saying that the US is playing poker in the Middle East, while its enemies play chess.

It is believed that Russia has the most extensive intelligence network in Syria, greater even than that of Iran. It would be the most likely culprit for a palace coup – as one scenario has it – as well as the best potential broker for a deal for Assad’s voluntary ouster. As a Russian diplomat hinted last week, Russia may not be opposed to such a deal. [7] It is important to pay close attention to Russia’s dealings with the Syrian opposition, as well as with figures such as Manaf Tlass.

However, even Russia would presumably need broad support in order to help usher in a political transition in Syria, and a consensus seems unlikely in the immediate future. On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the US of “direct endorsement of terrorism” [8] in the most recent episode in a series of heated exchanges.

It appears, therefore, that conditions are ripe for the Assad regime to hang on to power for a while longer, and for the violence to continue to escalate.

1. Consequences of the Fall of the Syrian Regime, , Stratfor, July 24, 2012
2. Assads’ family rule makes an Alawite state impossible, The National, July 24, 2012
3. Five Reasons Why There Will Not Be an Alawite State, Syria Comment, July 21, 2012
4. US fears Syria planning massacre in Aleppo, al-Jazeera, July 27, 2012.
5. Kurdish Liberation Movement in Syria Continues Despite Criticism, Rudaw, July 26, 2012.
6. In Syria conflict, U.S. struggles to fill intelligence gaps, Washington Post, July 24, 2012.
7. Syria: Russian diplomat claims Assad ‘ready to give up power’, The Daily Telegraph, July 20, 2012.
8. US position on Syria directly endorses terrorism – Lavrov, Russia Today, July 25, 2012.

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