in Moscow, but nothing indicates that it is changing anything about its support for Assad. The
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi thinks that things in Syria should be allowed to follow their
, meaning that Bashar al-Assad should serve out the rest of his term till 2014, when there will be new elections. Assad
, up from the 97.2% he received when first elected in 2000. Such a popular fellow!
, which re-affirms support for Annan's six-points, they plan nothing new and are poised to see the bloodletting go on for another three months. The UN observer force is to stay and become active again although it is rumored that General Robert Mood wants out as the head of the mission and will not renew his contract.
While all of these diplomatic moves go on, so too does the fighting and dying in Syria. On Monday, Al Ababiya News reported that the death toll in Syria related to the uprising has past the 17,000 mark according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Free Syrian Army fighters celebrate the overrunning of regime soldiers and destruction of armoured vehicles
Sixteen months after mass protests began in Syria, foreign intervention is still not on the table. The most recent meeting of NATO offered nothing more than a condemnation of the downing by Syrian forces of a Turkish F-4 jet fighter, killing two pilots. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen assured the world that Article 5 of the NATO Charter, mandating intervention when one of its neighbors was attacked, was never discussed. In fact, it has since come to be known that Turkey invoked article 4, basically a non-binding start of a conversation about establishing a no-fly zone, and NATO refused to even consider any sort of direct intervention. While NATO will continue to monitor the situation, and will meet again if there were another incident, it will take no further action.
Without direct foreign military intervention, how will this crisis end, and how long will it take? While speculation on conclusive answers may be fruitless at this point, one possibility is that the insurgent Free Syrian Army will effectively weaken the regime to the point of collapse. There are two important and developing factors that need to be carefully examined to assess this scenario: how strong is the Assad regime and how strong are the insurgents?
History of the Syrian Insurgency
The nature of the insurgency has changed since its inception. Initially, the opposition movement in Syria was comprised of peaceful methods of resistnce, from protests to labour strikes to the spread of graffiti. However, as these protests were increasingly fired upon by police and the military, defections began to occur from within President Assad's security forces. These defectors were often killed, or they were captured and tortured. The first signs of military opposition to the Assad regime was born out of these conflicts --- soldiers learned that if they refused to fire on unarmed crowds, they would soon be engaged in a fight for their own lives. Defectors who did escape then began to guard the protesting civilians from attack, in whatever way they could. Often, this meant putting down suppressing fire while the crowds dispersed, or providing anti-sniper support while demonstrators were on the streets. It was these initial defectors, joined by handfuls of civilians who were also taking up arms, that the Syrian insurgency, and what came to be known as the Free Syrian Army, was born, somewhere in the mid to late summer of 2011.
These activities limited arrests on the streets and attacks by "shabiha", pro-regime militia, on crowds; however, this fledgling insurgency could hardly be called an army and was not capable of standing up to even small units of soldiers or well armed-police.
Still, the appearance of armed opposition brought further consequences. The regime now had to confront the protests with more force to crack the line of defence. More soldiers, snipers, heavy machine guns, armoured vehicles, and tanks were deployed.. More checkpoints, increasingly heavily-armed, were established. More helicopters and aircraft could be spotted above Syria's cities and towns, initially providing reconnaisance for ground forces. There were more raids, more house-to-house searches for arms, communications equipment, defectors, or activists.
The increased scale of the crackdown led to a bloodier Syria, which in turn led to more defections. In some places, the military assault on civilians convinced some opposition members to take up arms. If they were going to die, they may as well die while fighting back. While the vast majority of the opposition in Syria remained dedicated to non-violent protests and other peaceful means to fight the regime, the crowds also became increasingly supportive of the parallel opposition of the military insurgency.
By late-summer 2011, the Free Syrian Army was taking its first steps towards a recognisable insurgency. In Idlib, a remote area in northern Syria, near the border with Turkey, the regime had little presence or popular support. Protests were taking over the cities and towns, and insurgents were flocking to the area because it was a safe place to hide. Rumours of insurgent attacks began, and the province was hit by a Syrian military offensive, an attempt to shut down the insurgency. However, as late fall drew close, the Free Syrian Army had taken root in many towns and villages, and even cities like Idlib were not fully under the control of the regime.
The Assad military began to escalate attacks, particularly in Idlib, Hama, and Daraa. By December, the Assad regime was raiding, and occasionally shelling, some neighbourhoods in Homs, Syria's third largest city that is strategically located north of Damascus, between the protest hub in Hama, the heart of the insurgency in Idlib, and the center of Assad's power in the capital.
The attacks against Homs failed to have the desired effect. In a string of surprise attacks, the Syrian insurgency showed its first real signs of strength. Between late December and mid January, the FSA captured key locations in Idlib, Homs, and two towns northwest of Damascus, Zabadani and Madiyah. Idlib, Ma'arat al Nouman, and many areas in and around Homs were also controlled by opposition forces.
However, these insurgent victories did not last. In the first week of February, Homs was brutally shelled and large parts of the city were reduced to rubble, particularly Baba Amr, in the south. Zabadani and Madiyah fell to the Assad regime. Idlib was heavily raided, and by late February even the remote Kafer Takharim had been retaken by regime forces.
This period in time brought out the paradox of the foreign perception of the conflict. Assad's military strength was both overstated and underestimated. Many analysts first floated the idea that the Syrian regime was too strong for a foreign intervention to work, despite evidence that it was hemorrhaging territory. However, proponents of the Syrian opposition had their hopes dashed, as widespread victories nearly vanished --- and quickly --- after having lasted for weeks.
Amid the muddle over the state of the regime, the state of the Free Syrian Army was being missed. While the world was fixated on the horror inflicted on civilians, an insurgency was slowly gaining a foothold. To this day, almost no outlet outside Syria reports --- or possibly recognises --- that the insurgents controlled Kafer Takharim for many weeks. It is hard to find accounts in English about the FSA's military capture of large swaths of al-Qusair, south of Homs, including the brief capture of a military hospital, despite the presence of dozens of regime tanks in the area. While Western journalists were flocking to Baba Amr in Homs, the Free Syrian Army was wreaking havoc on Assad military and police installations in the Bayada and Khalidiya districts, despite being nearly completely surrounded. The opposition was still prominent in Idlib, despite the fact that no area was completely in the hands of the insurgents.
The Free Syrian Army was beginning to demonstrate that it was both capable of striking anywhere and incapable of standing up to the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, some areas of Homs remained under the sway of the insurgents, as the Assad military was unwilling or unable to take and hold them and had to resort to sniper battles, tank raids, and artillery shelling to supress the FSA.
Free Syrian Army Makes Tactical Retreats
In February and March the Assad military regime launched a series of intensifying military campaigns to recapture territory. The Syrian military was sending a stark reminder that it may have stumbled, but it was far from outmatched.
On the surface, these campaigns were military victories for the regime. However, looking at the details of this campaign, it is clear that President Assad paid a steep price for these victories. The regime relied on long-range artillery attacks to dislodge the insurgents, weakening the resolve, cutting the supply chains, and supressing the insurgents, allowing for tank raids to soften and eventually recapture places like Baba Amr, Zabadani, and key territory in Idlib. However, the artillery strikes led to international condemnation, and the defection rate continued to rise. While Assad did not face the heavy losses that he did in January, these offensives sowed the seeds for more dissent within the ranks.
These attacks had other consequences. The regime had to deploy large amounts of tanks, artillery, and armoured vehicles across wide swathes of land, costing them large amounts of precious and costly refined oil. The regime was learning that permanently holding territory was difficult, as there was too much insurgent territory and too few military units that Assad could trust to hold defections to a minimum.
As a result, ever since March the regime's military strategy has largely been reactive, with the constant redeployment of forces, threatening the insurgents and the activists with the ever-present chance of a tank raid, an artillery strike, or a campaign of arrests. That kind of mobility was effective for a time, but it has proved expensive.
Eroding the Pillars of the Regime
By January, the FSA had heavy machine guns, sniper rifles, and even RPGs and B-10 recoilless rifles capable of destroying tanks, often provided to the insurgents by defectors or even sold to them by disloyal soldiers and commanders inside the regime. In parts of Homs, armoured vehicles sent to capture territory from the insurgents became weapons used against the Assad military when their crews defected. In Zabadani, up to a dozen regime tanks were destoryed in a single day as insurgents used captured vehicles and RPGs, either at close range inside Zabadani's narrow streets or across the open valleys in Zabadani's shadow.
To combat defections, the Syrian military increasingly turned towards long-range artillery strikes so that its own forces would not be able to defect by taking shelter inside the cities. With the artillery units bunched up and guarded by Assad's more loyal soldiers, and with the tanks close at hand instead of forwardly deployed, the strategy appeared to soften opposition positions while sending a message to insurgents, the citizens who supported them, and Assad's own soldiers, that resistance would be met with severe prejudice.
For a short while, the reliance on artillery strikes and quick blitzkrieg raids effectively drove much of the opposition into hiding. However, in the process, the regime effectively destroyed Homs, its third-largest city, and brought more protesters into the streets. By mid spring, many in the Kurdish population were joining the uprising, the Aleppo countryside shed nearly all its support for Assad, and demonstrations in Aleppo city --- previously thought to be a regime bastion --- grew to the point where they were no longer isolated from the uprising and the violence. Damascus and its suburbs were beginning to look more like a knife at Assad's back than a castle that would defend him in times of need. The Free Syrian Army had effectively won the support of large portions of the Syrian populous, while the Assad regime was losing credibility with many Druze and Kurdish organizations, some Alawites, many Christians, and a growing portion the middle and upper clases.
The widespread violence, particularly the high death toll in Homs, did not have the desired effect of weakening the opposition. While the insurgency was on its back legs --- perhaps punished for having attempted to take and hold territory too soon --- the protests on the streets began to surge. The marchers began to think that they were now the face of the uprising, and the more they took to the streets, the more they were targeted by an increasingly panicky regime. Every martyr appeared to be a rallying call for more defections, more protests, and more international attention.
In the short run, there had been a tactical success for the Assad regime, but even this was overstated. The FSA began to employ hit-and=run tactics, increasingly advanced roadside IEDs, and sniper attacks with increasing frequency. It had stopped thinking like the Libyan rebels who defeated Qaddafi, rebels who concentrated on capturing and holding territory. It was starting to use some of the tactics of the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, although the overall behaviour of the Syrian insurgents varied vastly from these two infamous places. Slowly, the cumulative effect of the economic problems, sanctions, the high costs of the crackdown, and the insurgent attacks were eating away at the regime.
While direct international military intervention is still not in the works, sanctions have choked Assad's currency reserves, and his lack of refined oil has led to a near shutdown of the economy in some areas. Perhaps the most important fallout, however, is that in the spring and early summer of 2012 it has become increasingly clear that private donors, and potentially nation states, have been covertly working to supply weapons and ammunition to the Syrian opposition, to say nothing of the medical and communications equipment that the US said it was donating to the cause.
The cracks were showing. While progress seemed painfully slow, and a resolution to the conflict seemed far away, doubts about the solvency of the Assad regime were beginning to mount.
The Free Syrian Army, Underestimated
The conflict reached a stalemate in the lead-up to the deployment of United Nations observers. The Assad regime had negtiated a ceasefire with UN envoy Kofi Annan, a ceasefire that, in principle, the FSA commanders in Turkey and the Syrian National Council had accepted. However, in the week before the ceasefire was to take effect, there was a sharp escalation in violence specifically targeting civilians. The regime appeared to be trying to scare the protesters off the streets. It could then pull back so that, once the UN observers arrived, it would appear as though the regime were complying with the cessation of violence.
While the effort to put the protesters out of sight was an unqualified failure, there was a partial success in getting nearly every news story to note a "decrease in violence" during the initial stages of the UN mission. However, the international and domestic condemnation of the regime did not cease.
This was also the next test for the Free Syrian Army. Previously, the FSA appeared disjointed, many commanders openly resenting their "leadership" in Turkey, and each battalion acting on its own accord, bringing reports of "roguish" behaviour. In Homs in particular, where the isolation and the stakes were at their highest, there were rumours and reports of crimes against captured soldiers and abducted Iranians. Now, however, the FSA was being put in a situation where commanders in Turkey had made blanket agreements on behalf of the entire insurgency. Many who were watching the conflict closely, including myself, believed that this was one of the weakest among many weak parts of the Annan plan). Individual FSA commanders would continue their attacks against the Assad regime, would be unable to curtail some of the insurgency's worst behaviour, and would not be able to provide centralised leadership.
But the FSA was full of surprises.
The UN mission was a near-total failure. Though the UN observers on the ground provided some valuable information, either through official statements or through leaks from the monitors in Syria. The UN monitors witnessed many attacks against civilians, and many examples of the Assad regime breaking its end of the bargain. The observers themselves were also attacked, serving as the ultimate evidence that the forces under regime control were not halting fire and Damascus could not be trusted to end this crisis.
However, during the initial days of the ceasefire, there was evidence suggesting that the Free Syrian Army fighters, in most areas, were complying with the ceasefire. As regime attacks on civilians and insurgents continued, there were reports of defensive actions by the FSA, but news of FSA offensive actions nearly disappeared. The image of the FSA as a chaotic organisation with no leadership was being challenged.
Then came the next surprise --- the FSA was capable of launching nationally-coordinated attacks. After weeks of Assad forces breaking the ceasefire, the FSA launched a series of dramatic and decisive attacks on Syrian military positions. Overnight, the insurgents launched a series of strikes in Idlib, Aleppo, and Damascus Provinces, challenging the regime in surprise attacks, and proving that itss forces were too spread out. In Homs Province, the heart of the Assad military assault, the FSA captured several forward operating bases outside of Al Rastan, north of Homs, and dislodged several Assad checkpoints in Qusayr, south of the city. There were reports of FSA attacks in Talbiseh to the north and Houla to the west, as well as coordinated attacks on buildings and checkpoints manned by security forces and soldiers in Homs itself. All of this took place in a single night.
The next morning, a high- ranking commander in the Free Syrian Army, Riad al-Assad, made a statement from Turkey that the FSA would not longer sit back and allow Assad to break the ceasefire without responding. The statement was perfectly timed. As news broke of the FSA offensives that were in process, it appeared that the attacks were nationally coordinated between separate FSA battallions and their leadership structure in Turkey.
State of War
After the sudden wave of FSA attacks, the regime worked quickly to regain control of the situation. However, over the course of several weeks it was clear that the violence was extremely widespread, and the regime's forces were spread far too thin. Sudden insurgent raids on positions inside and around the capital required the military to rush tanks and armoured vehicles into Damascus and its suburbs. Meanwhile, there was a growing feeling that the insurgency in the Idlib and Aleppo countrysides were slowly but steadily growing and were now close to unchecked.
Then came Houla --- and Qubair --- high-casualty events renowned for their brutality. The regime's shabiha militias were now accused of killing scores of civilians in these villages. There was evidence that these massacres had been coordinated with the Syrian regular army.
The shabiha had long been accused of conducting raids, torturing activists, torching businesses, beating protesters, and generally terrorising anyone they assumed belonged to the opposition. Now, there was growing evidence that the shabiha were destroying entire villages, conducting mass murder on behalf of the regime, and coordinating their attacks with, at the very least, local military commanders.
While everyone looked on in horror, those who were watching closely saw the mass killings as a sign of weakness --- the massacres occurred because arrests, beatings, tear gas, raids, gunfire, tanks, and even artillery barrages had failed to intimidate the opposition. These were desperate acts aimed at increasing the stakes further, and ultimately they were ineffective ones. Within days of the reports of the Houla massacre, Syria saw its largest protests in more than 10 months, and its most widespread demonstrations since the start of the uprising. The opposition, it seemed, refused to be intimidated. If these massacres were Assad's gamble, the safe bet was now against the regime.
The Houla massacre was a turning point, or perhaps more accurately a point of no return, as it seems every day since then has shown how a conflict can decay into chaos. Since the Houla massacre, seven of Syria's 10 largest cities have been shelled; two of the three which have not been bombarded, Aleppo and Raqqah have seen gunfire, arrest campaigns, and other signs of a Government crackdown. The suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo have resembled full-blown war zones, with shells landing on the outskirts of the capital and fired directly over the centre of Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
This surge in violence --- sustained violence --- has several catalysts. The failing economy and withering foreign reserves are applying immense pressure to the Assad regime, at the same time that protests are growing larger and spreading. The government's tactics to combat these protests have only resulted in more martyrs for the opposition, more demonstrations, and more defections. The Free Syrian Army grows steadily every day, and it is increasingly well-armed, obtaining weapons from recent defectors and (reportedly) sympathisers inside the Assad regime. There is also a growing body of evidence that Saudi Arabia and others have been arming the opposition for many months, and that the CIA has been supervising support coming from Turkey.
As the Free Syrian Army attacks regime resources and positions inside Syria's major cities, and as the FSA works to defend civilians in those areas, the Syrian military is increasingly drawn into the center of these population centers. The result is devastation, as the civilians in many of the country's largest cities see regular artillery shelling, tank raids, snipers, and all-out gun battles.
Evidence of Escalation
How successful are insurgent attacks? The Free Syrian Army still holds some of the territory it captured in Homs province in May, despite the fact that the region has arguably been the center of Assad's counterinsurgency efforts. In the last two weeks, the FSA appears to have forced the Syrian military to withdraw from the mountains of Idlib. The military redeployed along major highways that connects Idlib to Aleppo and Hama, but despite the consolidation of the military's power, the insurgents destroyed more than a dozen armoured vehicles and at least two attack helicopters in just a single village in Idlib, and perhaps dozens more vehicles nationwide. This video shows an entire convoy destroyed on June 28th near Khan as Subil (map):
Is the Assad Regime Ready to Fall?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Despite a growing multitude of problems, Assad still has thousands of tanks and armored vehicles, and likely outnumbers the Free Syrian Army by nearly 10 to 1. Assad has a well-equipped, well-trained army, capable of inflicting significant damage.
One need look no further than a development last week. With Assad tanks withdrawing from the mountains, the Syrian regular army was able to concentrate on Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib Province, taking the important crossroads after several days of shelling. Syrian troops were able to reclaim large parts of Douma and maintain control over large parts of Hama, Daraa, and Damascus Provinces, as well as nearly the entire coast between Lattakia and Tartus.
So far, the Assad regime has always been able to recapture territory that it has really wanted. However, this presents two problems. The first is that the pendulum never quite swings all the way back, as the regime loses some ground, some equipment, and the confidence of some of its soldiers. Second, these pendulum swings were perhaps more acceptable when they occurred in the mountains of Idlib or the deserts outside Homs. Now, they are occurring in central Idlib, all around Aleppo, and in the shadow of the Assad regime around Damascus.
Most of the Syrian military is confined to base, and the loyalty of those forces is questionable. Assad is vulnerable to the unknown --- whether it be foreign intervention sparked by sudden conflict at the borders or a sudden coup attempt by a high-ranking commander. The enemy, as they say, is at the gates, and Assad has little to stop a serious, sudden, and unexpected threat.
And the unexpected becomes more likely if large parts of Syria are under insurgent control, with many other areas, including those in and around the capital, in dispute. Within months Aleppo could be nearly surrounded by insurgent territory, large parts of Idlib will be in FSA control,key cities like Homs, Daraa, and Deir Ez Zor could be in dispute, and the suburbs around Damascus could be an anti-regime wasp's nest waiting to strike.
For all this, the Free Syrian Army still has significant weaknesses. It remains largely decentralised, despite an improving command structure. This makes it vulnerable to changes in regime strategy, as well as to rogue elements who could damage the insurgency's reputation, at home and abroad. The FSA also remains outgunned, and will continue to be able to hold territory only through costly attrition. The insurgents remain nearly defenseless against regime air force and artillery strikes, and are only able to face Assad's armoured divisions in specific circumstances. The FSA's well-conceived strategy mitigates these weaknesses by relying on hit-and-run and ambush attacks, then dissolving into the countrysides and cities until the regime tries to advance. These tactics are effective but destructive, and long-term progress can easily be erased. This kind of warfare has led to a highly chaotic, fairly unpredictable, and extremely bloody battlefield.
Nothing in Syria is certain but Death and Protests. The debate about whether the Free Syrian Army is good for Syria, or whether they can be trusted, or whether they will harbor extremists, will likely continue. However, as the conflict drags on, this debate is becoming increasingly academic, as are the efforts by Kofi Annan and others to negotiate a peace. No fighters, and no commanders, in the Free Syrian Army are in a position to agree this: why should they, as they ride a series of military victories?
Peace is not in Syria's immediate future, nor is the dissolution of its insurgency. The only questions that remain are how long the Assad regime can last, who will fill the void when he is gone, and what will be left of Syria when all that transpires.