Syria: We Have To Win This One Or We Are Screwed

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July 29, 2012: The government is using its most trusted (largely Alawite) troops in Aleppo, an indication that most of the regular army is either gone (deserted) or now considered too unreliable to fight. Only about ten percent of the population benefit from the Assad dictatorship and many of these are fleeing the country. The loyalist fraction of the population supplies the manpower for the secret police (about 50,000 full-timers) and the leadership of the armed forces (300,000 troops and 100,000 paramilitary, the majority of them Sunni, led by largely Alawite officers). For the past year the loyalty of many troops was bought, by making sure the troops were paid on time and that the married ones have access to needed consumer goods. But that is no longer enough, as the troops see rebels gaining control of major highways and border crossings. Turkey recently closed their border to trucks carrying government–bought supplies.

The Alawites are five percent of the population. Sunni Arabs are about 75 percent. Other minorities (Shia, Druze, Christian) will, up to a point, side with the Alawites (a common pattern in the Middle East, where non-Sunni minorities have long been persecuted). In the last few months, more and more of the non-Alawites have joined the rebels, fought alongside them, and made it clear that the Alawites were on their own. Even some Alawites have either joined the rebels, while others have opened negotiations to determine terms of local surrender. While Assad still has loyalists, their numbers and reliability are declining. Fewer and fewer Assad supporters see the Assad government surviving this rebellion. A few are willing to fight to the death, most are not.

It's largely class warfare. The Assad family cultivated the middle and upper classes. This kept the economy going but kept most of the population poor and outsiders in their own country. To move up in Syria you had to prove your loyalty to the Assads. That turned many ambitious non-Alawites into Assad loyalists. Many of these families are now having second thoughts. But in the major cities, like Aleppo and Damascus, there are whole neighborhoods full of these relatively well-off Assad supporters. Many of these families will not or cannot flee the country, and this is where a lot of the Alawite militias come from. Many of these militiamen have been in the army and have easy access to weapons. The problems arise when these militias go on the offensive and attack pro-rebel neighborhoods and kill and rape civilians. This exposes their own families to retaliation by the rebels. The Assads know this and ordered the secret police to use available cash and influence to recruit young Alawites for these militias. This was a desperate move because for the violent Alawite militias, it literally is "victory or death."

The growing number of defectors who were Assad supporters brings with them a steady stream of fresh information on what the Assads are up to. For example, the Assads are deliberately playing the religion card and depending more and more on Alawite militias for reliable gunmen. The other minorities are abandoning the Alawites and seeking to join the rebels or at least arrange some kind of neutrality. While the Alawites have lots of weapons, they are still only five percent of the population and not really united on this "fight to the death" strategy the Assads seem to have adopted.

Army deserters have been treated harshly (often executed immediately) if caught. As a result of this most army units were confined to their bases, with the more trusted troops guarding the rest. That system gradually failed and Sunni majority army units just melted away. There are less than 100,000 reliable soldiers and secret police. But over 20,000 armed militia have been raised from loyal (especially Alawite) populations. These gunmen are less disciplined and more prone to harsh treatment of rebel civilians. The militias are local forces defending their homes and families. Increasingly, the Alawite militias are organizing departures from Syria, or negotiations with local rebels about what it would cost to survive a rebel victory.

In 16 months the Syrian rebellion has left over 20,000 dead. The fighting in Aleppo has caused over a thousand casualties in the last week, most of them civilians wounded by days of artillery bombardment. The Assad forces use their artillery to intimidate the rebels and then send in the few loyal infantry they have. In the last two weeks over 3,000 have died, mainly due to heavy fighting in Damascus, Aleppo, and several other cities. The large urban areas are where Assad supporters live and now they are being forced to defend their own homes. In all of June, about 3,000 died and it looks like July's death toll may be twice that. Meanwhile over 400,000 (out of 22 million) have fled the country. Over ten percent of the population is going hungry and the Assads have been denying food to pro-rebel parts of the country. This makes it much easier for the rebels to recruit.

Rebels are receiving a steady supply of weapons via Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and even Lebanon (where the non-Shia majority in the north back the Syrian rebels). A growing number of weapons are being captured from the army or brought in by deserting soldiers. The Arab Gulf states are the major suppliers of cash and weapons. Iraqi Sunnis are sending in weapons and volunteers while the Turks have allowed rebel bases and training camps to be established in Turkey. To defend those facilities from Syrian attack, Turkey has moved more troops and anti-aircraft weapons to the Syrian border.

American officials are discussing with their Israeli and Turkish counterparts how to deal with the collapse of the Assad government. Turkey in particular is concerned with the flood of Assad loyalists seeking to flee. Iraq and Jordan have mostly Sunni Syrians on their border and not much fighting. Lebanon is heavily influenced by the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia, which would accept Assad loyalists as refugees. The Gulf Arab states have been handling a lot of the relief work, and military aid for the rebels, and are expected to help finance reconstruction. All these parties, with the exception of Hezbollah, want to prevent Islamic radical groups from gaining any power in post-Assad Syria. There is also fear that many rebel factions will begin fighting each other after the Assads are gone. Faction leaders in Turkey have been having a hard time agreeing on who will get what in post-Assad Syria. No one wants another civil war but the rhetoric is pointing in that direction.

July 28, 2012: Syrian forces made their first ground assault on Aleppo and were largely repulsed by the rebels. This assault came after several days of heavy shelling of rebel neighborhoods. The assault left nearly 200 soldiers, rebels, and civilians dead.  The rebels continue to hold nearly half the city and are recruiting more men locally every day.

The state controlled media is calling the effort to recapture Aleppo the "mother of all battles," a phrase that usually means: "we have to win this one or we are screwed." Meanwhile, fighting still continues in Damascus. Foreigners can hear gunfire at night and even occasionally during the day.

Russia announced that if its navy personnel in their naval base at Tartus were attacked by Syrian rebels, Russia would shut down their base and withdraw from Syria. Senior Russian officials seem to feel that the Assad government is crumbling and will not last much longer. This announcement is a signal to the rebels that Russia will not fight for the Assads and that Russia wants to be on friendly terms with the post-Assad government.

Rebels rescued two Western journalists who went missing after crossing the Turkish border on the 19th. The two had wandered into the camp of about 40 foreign Islamic radicals, who accused the Westerners of being "CIA spies." The two journalists were put under guard and the Islamic radicals sought to obtain a ransom for their release. When the Syrian rebels found out about this they went looking for the captives and found them today. The rebels did not have to fight the Islamic radicals and could be heard berating the radicals, who backed off and allowed their captives to go free. There are believed to be at least several hundred foreign Islamic radicals, some of them al Qaeda, in the country (plus several thousand local ones). The rebels tolerate them but have cracked down on stuff like kidnapping foreigners or trying to enforce Islamic lifestyle rules (women must be covered, men must grow beards) on civilians.

Although the government has threatened to use its chemical weapons (which it never officially admitted to having before) against any foreign troops entering Syria, some of those same chemical bombs and shells are being moved to camps less likely to fall into the hands of the rebels. But the thousands of tons of chemical weapons will eventually be seized by the rebels. There will be pressure to destroy the chemical weapons, something the United States and Russia have done with their own stocks.

July 26, 2012: Turkey has closed its Syrian border to commercial traffic but not to Syrian refugees or rebels.

July 25, 2012: Several thousand troops left their bases in the northwest, abandoning the area to the rebels, and headed for Aleppo.

July 24, 2012: The army has driven rebel groups out of most of Damascus but the rebels either retreated to the countryside or hid their guns and blended in with local civilians (who are pro-rebel). The rebels are apparently planning another major uprising in Damascus.

A senior Iranian general threatened Turkey, and other nations supporting the Syrian rebels, with retaliation. This had little effect, as Iran has long supported the Assads and is hated by most Arabs (and many Turks) for this. Iran has to worry about payback. Iran appears resigned to losing Syria and its operatives inside Syria are scrambling to see what can be salvaged from this mess.

July 23, 2012: Rebels captured the Syrian Army Infantry School, which is located outside Aleppo and contains large quantities of weapons and military equipment. Much of this stuff was soon moved into pro-rebel neighborhoods in Aleppo.

July 21, 2012: More troops are being moved to Aleppo, where rebels have seized control of nearly half the city. Artillery is beginning to shell pro-rebel neighborhoods.

 

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