August 20, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Assad's Control Over Syria Continues to Deteriorate

As of mid-August 2012, Syria's civil war has intensified to the point at which no dialogue between the regime and the opposition seems possible. U.N. and Arab League mediator Kofi Annan resigned in early August, and was replaced on August 18th by the equally respected Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran mediator, but who comes into the job expressing only limited hope for a peaceful solution. Virtually all U.N.-mandated observers have left Syria and the U.N. Security Council has allowed the observer mandate to expire entirely as of August 19th, replacing it with a small U.N. liaison office in Damascus. The Security Council remains deadlocked, with Russia continuing to oppose any U.N. Security Council resolution that explicitly calls for Assad to yield power.


No Political Solution in Sight

The civil war in Syria has also begun to spill over into neighboring states. A particular concern is for Lebanon, a small, fragile state prone to civil conflict among ethnic and political factions that have a direct stake in the outcome in Syria. Perhaps the most striking example is Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organization by the United States. Hezbollah's interest in Assad's fate stems, in part, because his regime is dominated by the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam (the same sect as Hezbollah and Iran). Assad has long served as the conduit through which Iran provides weapons and other material support to Hezbollah. In turn, Iran — both directly and via Hezbollah — is pouring money, fighters, and advice into Syria to try to keep Assad afloat. By contrast, the Sunni Muslim states of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have aligned with U.S. and Western policy by funding and providing arms to the mostly Sunni opposition in Syria.       

To be sure, Russian and Iranian support have failed to prevent Assad's Syria from becoming an outcast in the Arab and Islamic world, which is dominated by Sunni Muslim states. In November 2011, Syria was suspended from the Arab League — a major blow to Assad's prestige. In August 2012, at a key meeting in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which includes every Islamic country, also suspended Syria's membership despite vociferous lobbying to the contrary by the Iranian delegation to the meeting. That delegation was headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who attended the meeting to argue Syria's brief while facing criticism at home for leaving Iran in the aftermath of a major earthquake in the country.     


The Outcome To Be Decided in Battle

With international diplomacy moribund, and direct Western military intervention still unlikely, the future of Syria is likely to be decided on the field of battle. With the backing of both Western and Sunni states, the Syrian rebels, led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), have begun to neutralize the regime's two overwhelming advantages: its fielding of heavy weapons and its total control of Syrian air space.

As the battle has unfolded, the FSA and related factions have acquired a variety of weapons — some captured and others provided by outside backers — and honed tactics to destroy the Syrian military's armored vehicles. The rebels have demonstrated the ability to destroy tanks, particularly in the narrow streets of Aleppo, where armor can easily come within firing range of opposition fighters. The rebels also seized control of many of Aleppo's neighborhoods in late July, and the regime has made limited progress in taking back any of the lost territory there.  

On August 17th, Syrian media admitted that the rebels had encroached on the outskirts of Aleppo's airport. Capturing the airport, or even denying the government access to it, would deprive the regime of its main resupply route for its forces in and around Aleppo. At the same time, Syrian media also conceded that new flare-ups of fighting had occurred in Damascus, which the regime had claimed to have secured completely at the end of July. The key Damascus districts of Tadamun and Qaboon continue to harbor significant numbers of rebels, and the regime's claims to have fully pacified the city have been rendered hollow.

In early August, the FSA demonstrated a new capability by shooting down a Syrian Air Force fighter jet near the eastern oil city of Deir Azour. The deployment of Syrian air power against rebel forces there might have been motivated by reports that rebels have captured much of that city. Wresting the city from the government would put all of Syria's oil exports, although modest at about 220,000 barrels per day, under rebel control and give the FSA a major economic as well as morale boost.

The loss of Deir Az Zour would also put the FSA in virtual control of another major part of the country, the east. This would add to its control of much of the northwest, where it already has established control of a corridor from Aleppo to the Turkish border. Meanwhile, the Kurds of Syria, who inhabit the northeast, have used regime weakness to expel the Syrian army and establish a high degree of control in the towns they inhabit.


Is the Regime Unraveling?

With the Syrian military weakened to the point where the regime is clearly unable to beat back the armed rebellion, the regime continues to unravel. In early August, Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, a Sunni from Deir Az Zour appointed only two months earlier in a crisis-driven cabinet reshuffle, fled to Jordan and called on fellow officials to abandon the regime.  

As the prime ministerial defection emerged, it was also learned that the July 18th bombing that killed four top officials had done more damage than the regime first admitted. Not only was regime stalwart Assef Shawkat, Assad's brother-in-law, killed along with three ministers, but the bomb apparently caused Assad's brother Maher to lose his leg. Maher is perhaps the most trusted regime official and heads both the Republican Guard and the elite Fourth Armored Division — the two units that have spearheaded the regime's counteroffensives against the rebellion.      

Concurrent with these developments, French officials announced that highly significant defections were likely in the coming days. With reports that Vice President Faruq Al Sharaa's cousin, a military commander, had defected, there has been rampant speculation that Faruq Al Sharaa himself is seeking to defect as well. Prior to assuming his current post, Al Sharaa was a longtime foreign minister and the regime's most prominent Sunni leader. Earlier in the crisis, there was speculation that Assad might step down and Al Sharaa might assume the role of transitional leader, but that idea was scuttled by hardline Alawites around Assad who have chosen to fight the rebellion to the end. Speculation was so rampant that, on August 18th, Sharaa's office issued a denial that he had tried to defect earlier.

Should Al Sharaa defect, the regime would have melted down almost entirely to its Alawite core. With Alawites constituting only about 12% of the population, the current war of attrition favors the much more numerous Sunni rebels.

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