Syria: Evil Has Allies


February 12, 2013: The Assads have powerful allies, mainly Russia and Iran. Russia, along with China, has blocked UN attempts to organize armed assistance for the rebels (as happened in Libya). Iran has contributed over a billion dollars in cash in the last year to help the Assads meet the government payroll and import necessities for their supporters. Iran has also sent security experts, including members of the Quds Force (which specializes in organizing terrorism in foreign countries). While Iran has urged Assad to try and negotiate a peace the Quds officers are willing to help Assad achieve peace the hard way (via ultra-violence against rebellious towns and cities). The government has already increased the use of force, especially against Homs, where artillery has been firing at residential neighborhoods for over a week. Nationwide, over a hundred people on average are dying most days. Nearly 10,000 have died in a year of violence and over 250,000 have fled the country. The fighting has destroyed or heavily damaged over 20,000 buildings, mostly homes.

Turkey is under growing pressure to take the lead (of Western and Arab League countries) and organize a military intervention in Syria. The U.S. has told Assad that he will not last much longer but the Syrian dictatorship appears willing to use more violence in an attempt to quell the unrest. It has worked before (in the 1980s) but times have changed. Even with Russia and China blocking more action from the UN, and Iran supplying cash to keep the army and police happy, the inability to control the news (as was possible in the 1980s) means pictures of dead and wounded civilians and their shelled homes keep getting out and that sustains the rebellion.

Wealthy families, many of them staunch supporters of the Assad dictatorship, are increasingly fleeing. They are showing up in Lebanon, Turkey, and other nations in the region. These wealthy families are also trying to get their wealth out of the country, which is more difficult because of recently imposed sanctions. Most of these families already have foreign assets, which has long been a prudent custom in this part of the world.

Desertions in the army continue with most of them just going home or leaving the country. But over 20,000 have organized themselves into armed rebel units. So far, about twenty percent of the 300,000 army troops have deserted. While many of the deserters just disappear others join the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and many smaller rebel groups. Leaving the army is often very dangerous, as sentries and NCOs have orders to shoot suspected deserters on sight. In some cases mass desertions have led to over a hundred casualties among the fleeing soldiers. The FSA claims to have organized over two dozen battalions all over the country. While there are some large battles, with hundreds of armed men on each side fighting it out, most of the actions are FSA attacks on army supplies and patrols. The convoys carrying these supplies are vulnerable to ambush and as the FSA make more of these attacks more soldiers and police decide to desert or switch sides. Army and police commanders must devote more and more of their time to monitoring the loyalty of subordinates. The supply problems also consume a lot more attention as hungry troops, who are short of ammo, are less reliable. The FSA forces also had some tanks and artillery, and as more of this stuff is acquired, there will be more big battles. The most pressing need is for small arms (pistols, rifles, RPGs, and machine-guns) and ammunition. The most ready source is smugglers, particularly from Lebanon and Iraq. But these guys want cash and the rebels are short on that as well. A major shortcoming of the rebels is a lack of unity. The FSA has more media clout than actual authority over armed rebels. There are dozens of armed rebel groups that operate on their own. The FSA has money and other aid from the Turks and tries to use that to gain the allegiance of the independent rebels. That isn't working out too well because of the many political, tribal, and ethnic differences.

New conscripts are not showing up and defying the government to come get them. Most of the lower ranking troops are Sunni Arabs, who are over 75 percent of the population and generally hostile to the government. The minorities (Alawites, Druze, Christians) serve as NCOs and officers but do not want to be on the wrong side of a civil war, and not every minority family prospered under the Assads. Not even the non-Sunnis are guaranteed to remain loyal. Most troops are still kept at their bases, with only the most loyal troops sent out to fight the growing number of armed rebels.

The threat of sectarian war is very real, and there are already outbreaks of violence against the ruling Alawites and other minorities who support the government. Unlike 30 years ago, when the Assads faced a rebellion by Islamic radicals and put it down with one savage assault on the city of Hama, this uprising is much larger. One big massacre won't do it and would probably only enflame the rebels to kill all Alawites, especially the Assad clan.

The most disturbing development for the Assads is the appearance of rebels outside the capital. Damascus is full of people who have benefitted from supporting the Assad dictatorship. There are so many government supporters that it's very difficult to organize anti-Assad demonstrations in Damascus. Partly that's because there are more soldiers and secret police in the capital than anywhere else. Despite that, groups of rebels are attacking police and troops on the outskirts of the capital. Similar armed rebels are showing up all over the country, especially border areas. There are so few reliable police and troops available that many of these rebel groups simply take control of towns or neighborhoods.

The government appears to have ordered the security forces and secret police to use unrestrained violence against any opposition. Thus over a hundred people a day are being killed, with several hundred more wounded. Total deaths, for 11 months of violence, are now over 10,000. The government says that over 2,000 security personnel have died in that period. There are not as many arrests because there's no place to put any new prisoners. While the gunfire will disperse a crowd of demonstrators as soon as the troops move on another demonstration appears. With most Syrians opposed to the government, and willing to risk their lives to drive the Assads out, things look grim for the current dictatorship. Most Western governments consider the Assads out of touch and doomed. Many Arab governments are coming to the same conclusion. So it's not a case of if, but when, the Assads will depart. The Arab League is trying to broker a deal that will make that happen sooner rather than later. The Assads are not cooperating.

The central Syrian city of Homs, 160 kilometers north of the capital, is the scene of the most intense violence. The city is surrounded by troops, who themselves are under constant attack by FSA groups. The civilians in Homs keep putting on anti-government demonstrations, despite growing food shortages and trigger happy security forces. For over a week the army has been shelling residential neighborhoods defended by rebel fighters. The army has also sent in snipers to shoot at anyone who shows themselves in these neighborhoods.

February 12, 2012: Rebuffed by the UN (because of Russian and Chinese vetoes) a number of Arab states (mainly from the Persian Gulf) have joined with Turkey, Britain, and the United States to do something, quickly, to aid the Syrian rebels. The Arab League has been taken over by pro-rebel states and they recently moved to ease out Sudanese officials from Syrian operations. Sudan has a government similar to the Syrian dictatorship and is also brutal with its domestic opposition. This pro-rebel faction is taking over and hustling to aid the rebels anyway possible, as quickly as possible.

Lebanon is sending more troops and police to the Syrian border, at the request of the Syrian government, to halt smugglers or arrest Syrian rebels. These operations have not been extensive and the weapons smuggling continues.

February 11, 2012: In the capital, an army general (who ran a military hospital in Damascus) was assassinated by rebels or so the rebels claim. Unless there is some nasty infighting within the Assad government the rebel claim is probably true.

February 10, 2012: Two bombs went off in Aleppo, killing 28.  One explosion was at a police station, the other at a military intelligence facility.

The United States released satellite photos showing the Syrian tanks and artillery surrounding the city of Homs, and the fires destroyed buildings the constant shelling have caused.

February 9, 2012: Germany expelled four Syrian diplomats who were connected with Syrian government agents being used to intimidate Syrians living in Germany. The Syrian embassy was trying to terrify local Syrians into halting anti-Assad demonstrations.

February 6, 2012: The U.S. has shut down its embassy in Syria, mainly because of the increasing violence.

February 4, 2012: Syrians overseas have led attacks on Syrian embassies in Britain, Egypt, Australia, and Kuwait.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close