TSG IntelBrief: Syria: Assad Losing Ground

INTELBRIEF

TSG IntelBrief: Syria: Assad Losing Ground

 As early July 2012, momentum has shifted significantly to the armed rebellion that is attempting to protect a fifteen month old popular uprising and topple the regime of Bashar Al Assad. In late June 2012, Assad finally acknowledged publicly that the rebellion is a serious threat to his regime, telling his newly inaugurated cabinet that “we are at war” and that all elements of national power must be harnessed to achieve “victory.”

Large swaths of central and northern Syria are now under the control of the Free Syrian Army and other armed factions, to the point where the ex-leader of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, was able to make an unimpeded, albeit brief, visit into Syria in late June. And in one the most dramatic developments in the uprising to date, a Syrian pilot defected by flying his combat aircraft to Jordan in late June, a highly significant — and symbolic — act given that Bashar Al Assad’s father, the late longtime ruler Hafez Al Assad, was commander of the Air Force and used that service to engineer his 1970 takeover. Perhaps of most importance, well-placed sources have reported that defections are increasing among senior officers, an indicator that had been absent until recently.        

By the end of June, the number of rebel forces — consisting primarily of Sunni Muslim defectors — may exceed 40,000. While this number is much smaller than the 250,000 member national military, it may be equal in size to the Alawite core of the military, the only segment of the military that is truly trusted by Assad. A key geopolitical demographic in this scenario is that Alawites comprise only 17% of the country’s population of 22 million; in contrast, Sunni Muslims represent a portion of the population at least four times as large and constitute a numerical majority of the military as well. However, they have never controlled the best armed or best compensated units in the military.

In developments that likely have alarmed Assad’s inner circle, armed elements seem increasingly able to assault regime targets in and around Damascus. During the latter half of June, for example, opposition forces attacked a military installation in Damascus that served as a base for units of the elite Republican Guard, the key defenders of the regime. There were also attacks against a central court facility and a pro-Assad TV station (Al Ikhbariya) just outside Damascus. Suburbs of Damascus, such as Douma, which the regime claimed to have “liberated” during offensives in March 2012, are again largely under the control of the resistance.  

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International Support for the Opposition Strengthening

The rebellion also appears to be receiving growing international support — although still not to the point where major foreign powers are ready to undertake direct, armed intervention to help it succeed. Turkey has been supporting the rebellion by hosting the Syrian National Council, Syrian refugees, and commanders of the Free Syrian Army. After Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet in late June, which had briefly intruded into Syrian airspace, Turkey threatened to combat any Syrian military unit that approached their common border. The net effect will be to establish the rebel safe zone in northern Syria that Turkey has advocated for many months.

The success of the armed rebels results in part because they are receiving not only a more steady supply of weapons, but also more sophisticated arms than previously had been the case. The arms are reportedly being supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but it was reported in June that U.S. intelligence is helping direct the flow of the arms to rebel units that have proven to be operationally effective and who also want to see democracy emerge in Syria. The weapons are funneled from Turkey in an allocation and distribution process that is becoming progressively more organized and secure.   
 
On the diplomatic side, the United Nations and Arab League mediator, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, has largely acknowledged that his original peace plan has failed and is trying to organize consensus around a new plan that provides for political transition. Under the revised concept, a unity government would be formed with representatives from both the current government and opposition, excluding any person or faction seeking to undermine the transition. The plan was the centerpiece of discussion at an international meeting in Geneva on June 30th, attended by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union states, Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait, and Qatar. The United States successfully excluded Iran and, as a concession, agreed that Saudi Arabia would not be involved. This meeting produced general concurrence, but left open the question as to whether Assad could be part of the transition regime. That point reflected Russia’s continued backing for Assad, although many observers say that Russia is in the process of acquiescing to the idea that Assad will have to leave office soon. Any clear sign that Russia has abandoned Assad could form the tipping point that convinces Assad to leave, a point that has not been reached to date.      

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The Future of the Rebellion

Despite the growing momentum, the rebellion is still not close to toppling Assad outright, and U.S. officials admit the regime remains cohesive. Further, the rebellion appears to have promoted solidarity among the Alawite community, a phenomenon driven by the fear that the fall of the Assad regime would cause sectarian reprisals against the community by the Sunnis.

The attacks in Damascus discussed above are considered symbolic, but do not fundamentally threaten the regime’s ability to hold the city or to continue government operations there. To date, no rebel unit has been able to overrun the regime’s most loyal forces in a frontal assault. To be sure, the regime remains well armed, and is making increasing use of helicopter gunships as of May 2012, although knowledgable observers contend that the Syrian military has not employed this weapon system effectively. The helicopter pilots — perhaps out of fear of being shot down, or simply reticent to follow orders to kill fellow Syrians — are flying too high to be able to eliminate opposition targets

At the same time, many experts claim the opposition’s political leadership remains divided and out of touch with the day-to-day operations of the rebellion inside Syria. The Syrian National Council — the Istanbul-based coalition of Syrian opposition groups — is still viewed as dominated by Islamists. In addition, several key figures have left to start their own political opposition groups, and the Council has not been recognized by major international powers as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Of major significance, despite the building momentum in favor of the rebellion, the Christian and Kurdish communities, at least in the aggregate, have not yet joined the rebellion. The appointment in mid-June of Abdel Basit Sayda, a Kurd, to lead the Syrian National Council was intended in part to persuade the Kurds to throw their full weight behind the uprising, but there is no evidence that has occurred. Similarly, the Christian community continues to be uncertain about how it would be treated by the opposition were the rebellion to triumph — concerns amplified by the high proportion of Islamists in the rebel ranks.

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