One way or another the brutal conflict underway in Syria appears to be going to last longer than anyone might have expected. Just last weekend the Free Syrian Army began sending out communiqués from its newly established information office in Beirut. That’s always a sign that funding has grown to the point of underwriting a political program. Establishing a successful information profile is an essential step in unifying an opposition front — or at least creating that appearance. The Russians have made it clear they intend to do what is necessary to ensure the maintenance of their rented Mediterranean naval base at the port of Tartus; and the Iranians continue to supply money and materiel to support their rented relationship with the friendly Shia-related regime of Assad in Damascus, ensuring Tehran’s land bridge of influence through to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
From the ever nervous White House come the explanations of its lack of a more active support for the Syrian rebels by suggesting they don’t really know well enough the make-up of these government opposition forces. There are good reasons not to get involved militarily in Syria, but not knowing the components of the opposition is neither persuasive nor true. The real deterrent to military action against Bashar al Assad’s forces is the size of his army of active units numbering 295,000, according to the 2011 figures of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The army reserve adds an equal amount. The IISS authoritative publication Military Balance noted in the same year that this manpower was backed by 4,959 battle tanks (though only 50% operational) and 3,400 artillery tubes. Defections from the Syrian Army have made little inroad on the active regular units, though there has been a definite weakening in the reserve. The Israelis have made it clear they consider the regulars a formidable fighting force and the Syrian Air Force, plus SAM’s, an adequate initial defense against foreign air attack, though requiring substantial reinforcement for prolonged combat.
The make-up of the rebel forces may be complex and dispersed, but it’s not unknown. Perhaps the most immediately active source of finance and materiel comes from Sunni Muslim organizations, political and military, from across the border in Lebanon. This includes assistance that originates from the Saudis, Qataris, and expatriate Syrians from all over the world, as well as the various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The most obvious organizational aid comes from the Al-Mustagbal group operating out of Tripoli, Lebanon led by Saad Hariri, the son of the late Lebanese leader, Rafiq Hariri. It is clear that Saad would do everything he could to destroy Bashar Assad who the younger Hariri believes was ultimately responsible for the killing of his father.
Even more extensive is the logistical support provided by militias loyal to Sheikh Shadi al- Mawlawi. Israeli sources reliably report that arms and ammunition are smuggled into Syria from Lebanon by his Salafist forces. Syrian intelligence has put pressure on the Lebanese General Security Department to place known anti-Syrian Sunnis like al-Mawlawi under detention. The result has been a security sweep of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli rounding up all suspects — including al-Mawlawi — for “terrorist operations.” Reportedly he was released shortly after.
Lebanon is not the only route of supplies and intelligence for Syria. Jordan and Turkey provide access from the south and north respectively. But the system of smuggling tends to be the same from wherever it comes. Perhaps the best example of the system in process, however, can be shown by what happens via a distribution point such as that of Al Qusayr, which is strategically situated about 5 km from the major city Homs. Al Qusayr is a sizable town of 40,000 people (including one third refugees), not far from the mountainous border of north Lebanon. It is one of the numerous “centers” that house the men and materiel that then connect with the disparate rebel elements that are spread across the Syrian landscape.
Al Qusayr is protected by two currently company-sized “brigades” of the Free Syrian Army: one unit is formed of regular soldiers that came over with their weapons and own commander. This is fairly unusual. The other is a mix of reservists and young able civilians. This latter group is more typical of the types of units being formed all over the country where they can be supported by outside assistance even though there is no central leadership. In many areas, unfortunately, there are only resistance groups comprised of courageous but inept civilians armed only with what weapons they can find in their communities. It is to destroy all these various units and the city, town and village environment in which they exist that the Syrian Army and its functional allies, the former criminal gangs now called militia, focus their attacks. It is classic Russian “scorched-earth,” anti-insurgent tactics evolved and perfected in Chechnya.
For its part the Syrian Army has been used primarily for its armor and artillery power within major urban areas. Small squadrons of light tanks coordinate attacks on villages and towns for maximum killing and psychological effect. The most active and destructive of the pro-regime forces is what has been referred to as shabiha. As professional “enforcers” these criminal gangs have a long history in Syrian trade and commerce, especially in the port areas of Latakia and the other coastal cities.
Until the current dissidence grew dangerous to the Assad regime, the shabiha had been a target of government repression. The uprising against the regime spurred a government operation to enlist these gangs in actions against anti-Assad communities. By using these now Alawite-led teams as killing squads, the Assad security chiefs sought to be able to create the appearance of local internal civilian political conflict rather than acknowledge the brutal coordinated massacre of thousands of innocent civilians that actually occurred.
Invading Syria would require a massive ground and air assault. Counting on large numbers of the military to defect is wishful thinking. The idea that the issues involved are purely a Shia-Sunni division ignores the fact that a large portion of the Syrian Ba’ath Party is made up of very satisfied Sunnis well connected in the Assad family regime. It is all very much in the self-destructive pattern of Middle Eastern history. The battlefields are ancient even if the battles are contemporary.