Middle East

Syrian conflict moves beyond ‘tipping point’

A picture taken on September 28, 2012 shows damaged vehicles and buildings in the northern city of Aleppo following months of clashes and battles between Syrian rebels and government forces. AFP PHOTO/MIGUEL MEDINA

BEIRUT: An explosion ripped through a school in southern Damascus Tuesday during what the Syrian rebels claimed was a weekly meeting of military officers and pro-regime militiamen.

The following day, a twin bomb attack targeted the army’s General Staff building in the heart of the capital, reportedly killing and wounding a handful of officers and soldiers, in another “operation” claimed by elements of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Earlier in the week, the official Turkey-based leadership of the FSA released a video announcing its relocation to inside Syria, supposedly to demonstrate that it was poised to exert more control over the military side of the uprising in the country.

In recent weeks and months a series of military developments have unfolded in the war in Syria, which is now a year and a half old and has claimed at least 30,000 lives.

The documented incidents quickly pile up. The rebels have begun to target the regime’s planes and helicopters on the ground, and even dropped several of them from the sky, thanks to lucky shots from primitive anti-aircraft weapons.

In Homs, a tunnel was dug under a hospital purportedly housing government forces, and demolished with explosives. Armed resistance has spread to the governorate of Latakia, after having been largely absent during the first year of the uprising.

In the north, a third border crossing with Turkey, at Tal Abyad, was taken by the rebels, while the battle for Aleppo has entered its third month, with daring attacks and stalemate marking the ebb and flow in the strategic metropolis.

Does one or all of the elements add up to a military turning point, one that will suddenly or decisively tip the balance in favor of the FSA and other groups participating in the armed insurrection against the regime of President Bashar Assad?

For Yezid Sayigh, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, the conflict has progressed beyond the point where a single, conventional military event could suddenly move things in either direction.

“A whole range of things are going on, and one incident doesn’t represent the whole – if the rebels do something clever somewhere, it doesn’t mean they’re going to do something clever everywhere,” he says, highlighting the continued “enormous fragmentation” in the military and political wings of the FSA and other groups.

One sign of this is that FSA battalions in the Idlib and Deir al-Zour regions have recently stepped up their targeting of air bases, which house the aircraft that the regime is increasingly relying on to target civilian areas believed to contain rebel forces – but the tactic didn’t emerge elsewhere in the country.

“We’re in a period of long, drawn-out quantitative accumulation [of military developments], but not qualitative shifts,” Sayigh says.

Friday’s anti-regime demonstrations throughout the country, notably, were staged under the slogan of “unify the FSA battalions,” a full 18 months into the conflict.

Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes the rebel groups have made improvements of late, but that these remain restricted to individual governorates in Syria, with nation-wide planning or operations yet to emerge.

“There’s more centralization, especially at the provincial level. Instead of a herd of battalion-type organizations, more are coming under a higher command; it’s another indication that the FSA is improving,” he says.

But while the FSA is “taking advantage of opportunities and getting better as a fighting force, it’s not a dramatic change.”

Both experts describe a long, bloody war of attrition, with “both sides living off each other’s mistakes,” as Sayigh puts it.

Sayigh notes that the regime’s performance represents a mixed bag.

“It’s still cohesive, but the tactics and methods are counterproductive – the military is in a position to win any battle win tactically, but is never in a position to exploit the victory, so it can’t build on it to create momentum,” he says.

On the other hand, the Syrian government forces are waging war not as a state, but as the “biggest militia” in the country, according to Sayigh.

“It’s been very striking that the army did not fall apart. The regime has been able to rely on its officer corps; it’s got rid of 30 generals who were never going to help it and promoted younger officers, and is probably fighting better,” he notes.

The regime “doesn’t have to function as a state, or command the obedience of the people – it just needs to survive, feed itself and keep shooting. If they lose this or that [area], they’re still there, punching back, and punching hard,” Sayeigh continues.

Sayigh also downplays what he calls a “big lie” that the conflict is about an Alawi military force against a Sunni population.

“You’ve got an army with a large number of Sunni officers, and Sunni conscripts, who are [still] obeying orders,” he says, adding that the inability of army generals to defect along with their troops is a telling sign of the rebels’ weakness.

He calls FSA chief Riad Asaad’s announcement that the rebel command is now based in Syria “a public relations move.”

“The fact that you need to announce it to the world means you have very little to deliver. It seems like he’s pleading for attention.”

As for the battle under way in Aleppo, he continues, a regime victory would be a setback for the rebels but might not reflect anything more than a desire to take cities, without the ability to exert control over the spacious areas of countryside where government authority has disappeared.

Meanwhile, the regime appeared to score a victory this week when a dozen or so FSA fighters announced in Damascus that they were turning themselves over to the authorities.

The opposition camp responded quickly with a video showing that one of the men had appeared on state television six months earlier, confessing to “terrorist” acts with the FSA, a sign of how much propaganda obscures what is actually taking place.

And the rebels are just as guilty of trying to win public relations points.

“There’s a lot of bulls**t out there, and it undermines the importance of what is [actually] happening,” Sayigh says.

The FSA often claims to benefit from inside help in mounting their attacks, but the importance of this point is often overstated.

“It’s true that tons of people are on the inside, passing information, but this happens in every civil conflict,” Sayigh says. “It’s like whistling in the dark – the real story is that [the rebels] have been unable to generate real splits in the army; otherwise they wouldn’t have to talk about help from inside, because a real split could break the back of the Syrian army, and that’s not happening.”

Both experts downplay the impact of Islamist foreign fighters in the conflict and their presence, according to various media reports, has led at times to tension with the “mainstream” FSA units, rather than any steady growth in the military strength of the rebels.

Sayigh says the defection to the rebel side by an entire army brigade in Aleppo, followed by others, would be a significant development in the struggle. But otherwise, unless a nonconventional “game changer” appears, such as the use of chemical weapons, the two sides appear locked into a long period of attrition.

The coming months, as the war enters its second winter, will see both sides under strain as they struggle to provide basic needs for their respective supporters.

And for a country that is supposedly divided between regime and rebels, “there is probably a larger number than people acknowledge in the middle,” Sayigh says.

“The net impact of that is to the benefit of the regime – the regime benefits more from the passivity of the people than the rebels, but there is no such thing as a tipping point ... we’re way past that.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 29, 2012, on page 1.




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