Syria: Fall of the Regime with Risk of Libanization

Damascus -according to agencies reports- keeps making use of a dissordered offensive against the forces of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), without reaching acceptable results in the military field. While the government of al-Assad peers over the cliff, the geopolitical reconfiguration of the region seems quite far from a 'happy ending'.

08 de Agosto de 2012

In the course of a few weeks, the complex syrian scenario began sealing the fate of the Bashar al-Assad's regime, from the ground. The defection of a fighter pilot adds to the recent departure of the late Prime Minister Riyah Farid Hijab towards Jordanian territory. Predictably, this event was minimized Twitter, Matías E. Ruizfrom the offices of the local news agency SANA, being reported that the related official was forced to resign by presidential order no less than a month ago. In any case, the Administration had already suffered from a fierce strike over the bombing that took the life of Hisham Bekhtyar (the head of the local Mukharabat, Intelligence services) and the ones of other three top governmental security officials. Last but not least, the detonation that reduced a state TV/radio station to rubble on August 6th did not refer to a secondary matter.

Nor in the military plain the latest news have been auspicious for the survival strategy of the Damascus leader. Since no less than twenty days ago, Riyah Farid Hijab | The New York Timeselements of the Free Syrian Army are involved in heavy, bloody fighting -skirmishes is no longer the term- in the outskirts of the Capital city, representing a tough obstacle for the troops loyal to the government. Meanwhile, the city of Aleppo -the most important commercial outpost in the country- has not yet witnessed the rebel retreat repeatedly promised by al-Assad. The FSA has presented notorious opposition to the regime's offensive, with its regular troops backed-up by heavy weaponry and mechanized infantry. Western Intelligence reports reveal the government is suffering from major loses of artillery, territorial control (as previously noted) and mobility. On the other hand, a high priority issue for the regime shows direct relationship with its foreign exchange reserves availability.

Furthermore, the present whereabouts of the chief of state remain unknown, something that reenforces the uncertainty inside the Administration. The objective criteria seem to have vanished from the official agenda. While defections increase, the offensive carried out in urban centers shows a clumsy saturation strategy: the Sirian state indiscriminately bombs its own civilian population from the air. In the end, al-Assad is employing the very same kind of measures previously used by the Egyptian leader Muammar Khadafy short before his downfall: the elimination of civilian targets with extreme prejudice. Which -in suburban slang- equals to shooting everything that moves. Just like when the Egyptian Army located snipers in every corner of Tripoli with the goal of opening fire upon anyone who stood close to windows and balconies. Once again, the history of conflicts along the modern era faces the fact that urban combat scenarios represent an endless nightmare for regular armies. The lack of criteria and objectives of any given State in warfare are usually met with the assymetry embodied Free Syrian Armyby the guerrilla combatant. Specter where the profound knowledge of the terrain remains a decisive factor. And -clearly- there is a breaking point in which the classic treaties on counterinsurgency fall short.

Nor should be taken seriously the threats appointed by the government in Damascus claiming that there would be no hesitation to employ weapons of mass destruction (chemical weapons) if foreign contingents decide to cross the country's borders. According to documents prepared by experts on the subject, even though Syria has declared posession of this kind of ordnance, the country would not be able to attack -with acceptable results- enemy troops on the ground. The explanation refers to the fact that the distribution and dissemination of chemical agents over the enemy -this is, with the goal of provoking a remarcable number of casualties- could only be achieved thru high concentration of those agents in few square meters, and to tactically consolidate this goal is extremely difficult. Especially considering the reported loses of material that compromise the forces loyal to al-Assad. Consequently, other concerns referring to the possibility that certain groups might seize these weapons close to the end of the conflict might also be excessive. The key factor in this issue is related to the difficulties inherent to the effective use of those agents and -secondarily- to the inconvenience in doing so (taking into account the way neighbors such as Israel might later retaliate).

It is now time to contemplate the global picture, in order to measure the geopolitical implications arising from the marshy Syrian subsystem. It's the Islamic Republic of Iran one of the actors mainly injured by the partial results the conflict is returning so far. The reason: Teheran has traditionally Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar al-Assadbehaved as a strong ally of Damascus, supplying Syria with both funds and weapons. It'll be useful to illustrate this fact the recent capture of a number close to fifty Iranian nationals in Syrian territory by the hands of the Al Bara Brigade (one of some different factions operating in the core of the FSA). While the rebels assure the captives are part of the well-trained persian Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian capital claims that they were mere pilgrims whose plan was to travel to a shiite temple located close to Talamon. Propaganda injunctions apart, analysts refer Iran has very much to loose with the fall of al-Assad, since this would represent a severe strike to Teheran's strategy to widen its influence not only into Syria but also into Iraq and Lebanon. Finally, the Islamic Republic will have to quit its offensive prerogative, switching to a defensive one. Effect that leaves room for Turkey to increase its range of influence into Northern Iraq and -in the process- block the Kurdish agenda, people that won't let up their ambition to build their own nation-state in the referred quarant inside the old Babylon. But Ankara should not worry that much: the concretion of a Kurdistan nation has never been happily considered by the Western powers with declared interests in the region.

A posteriori, it is worth mention that a feasible libanization of Siria (with its territory partitioned and controlled by groups nurtured by well-differenced goals and projects) certainly does not represent an acceptable alternative for Israel. Although obvious, experts will agree that Tel Aviv obtained favorable results when conducting under the table negotiations with the Basher al-Assad regime in older times. A Syrian State in political implosion and Al-Assad and Vladimir Putinunder control of extremist elements carrying a rabid antisemite doctrine would mean an incomprehensible challenge for the overstretched security of the Hebrew State.

On the other hand, the Russian Federation -having longly supported Damascus thru international forums and the UN- has already began limiting that backup. For Moscow, the cost of taking sides with al-Assad has been onerous for its diplomats, considering the increasing amount of casualties derived from the fighting -more than twenty-thousand so far-. A few days ago, the supply of attack helicopters on behalf of the Federation was opportunely aborted, after being detected their displacement to the conflict zone by using ships. And it was the Putin Administration who took the decision into its own hands: Moscow has been investing proper time evaluating the fall of the Alawite regime.

Afterwards, attention must be also placed on the learning curve that characterizes Washington since the beginnings of the Arab Spring. Perhaps the recategorization of its doctrine will now focus in giving more room for action to the free forces involved in every nation in particular, as seen during the Egyptian crisis (and now Syria). If necessary, the military card could only reduce its margin to participating under the NATO frame, consolidating consensus together with its allies in Europe and playing a specific role by backing up the FSA rebel clusters with sea and air power. The second of FSA elementthese alternatives was recently invoked by the U.S. Senators John McCain, Joseph Lieberman and Lindsey O'Graham, a subtle way Capitol Hill might have picked for sharing clues related to what could happen in the short-term.

To conclude, it'd be valid to round up the actual scope in regards to operations of indirect intervention, aiming to demolish the foundation of Damascus (and always taking into account that the deploying of ground forces is no longer a feasible alternative):

* Turkey (serving as a primary command center) coordinates the use of supply lines along borders.
* Saudi Arabia (secondary command center) provides financing for the FSA with the goal of encouraging mass defections inside the Syrian regime's military; training the rebels and supervising Intelligence and weapons transfer to rogue elements.
* The United States intervenes in the hand of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), private military contractors (PMCs) and other agencies, classifying and compiling human and signals Intelligence (HUMINT and SIGINT, respectively), and establishing liasons for an eventual post-Assad scenario. Closely, special operations forces provide advise to the Jordanian military and analyze hand to hand with Amman those most suitable courses of action to provoke the fall of Damascus. The defection of Riyah Farid Hijab must be scrutinized under this spectrum.
* Qatar supplies military assistance, logistics and communication lines.
* France and the United Kingdom, finally, collaborate by supplying traditional means.

Eventually, the deep review of the intervening variables will be of help to corroborate the complexity of the Syrian scenario. Even though it appears somehow obvious that the West will celebrate the fall of Bashar al-Assad, the concerns will need to focus on the negative results this equation might return. The multiple interrelationships between the participating actors (Kurds, Sunnis, Alawites, Shiites and so on) returns an infinite range of combinatorics, if it's allowed to analyze the facts from a mathematical perspective. Furthermore, nations such as Turkey, Israel or Saudi Arabia will not necessarily coincide when the time comes to choose an ideal result after the fall of Damascus. In this instance, not even Washington is able to forsee a picture of preference.

One might as well give some reason to Kale Ingram (a secondary character in the American series Rubicon, AMC) when he claimed: "Such is the true nature of Intelligence: it is always incomplete".

Matías E. Ruiz, Editor

* Translated into English by the author

Own sources and references, as follows:

* With Helicopter Allegation, U.S. Raises Heat on Russia (The Wall Street Journal |
* A Defection in the Dark Jolts Syrians (Damien Cave & Dalal Mawad, The New York Times |
* Three Senators Call for U.S. to Intervene in Syria With Airpower (Atlantic Council |
* Chemical Weapons Delivery (Federation of American Scientists |
* The Specter of Syrian Chemical Weapons (Scott Stewart, Stratfor |


Matías E. Ruiz, Editor