Can the Free Syrian Army succeed?


By Joseph A. Kechichian

Rebel forces need brigade-sized defections, heavy weaponry and better coordination to defeat Al Assad’s forces.

In the aftermath of the Russian and Chinese UN Security Council vetoes, which essentially called on Syria to adopt Arab League recommendations, Damascus and its handful of allies faced a truly existential moment: Will President Bashar Al Assad step down (or stand aside as Washington prefers that, it may be worth underlining, is not the same thing) in a ‘peaceful’ transition, especially if the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asks him to, or will this uprising transform itself into an all-out civil war?

Lavrov may prefer a diplomatic solution, but assuming that his mission fails, will we then see an escalation and, under the circumstances, can the Free Syrian Army swell its ranks with brigade-size desertions?

Entertaining New York presentations and customary vetoes aside – as few honest commentators dared to compare nearly 100 US vetoes to buttress Israel and its shaky claims over the years – senior officials exchanged classic Cold War rhetoric from a bygone era.

For US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “what happened at the United Nations was a travesty,” while her UN Ambassador Susan Rice used the word “disgusting”. More eloquent perhaps, British Foreign Secretary William Hague accused China and Russia of “betraying the Syrian people”, which did not move Beijing – where distrust of yet another putative western intervention ensured a Pavlovian step – but drew a rebuke from Lavrov who described comments by American and European leaders after the vote as “indecent and hysterical”.

Of course, these convoluted and rather mediocre diplomatic manoeuvres translated in an escalation of the fighting on the ground with an ever growing death toll. In fact, serious combats were under way not just in Homs but also in six of the country’s 14 governorates.

Although loyal units in the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) stood by the Baath regime, the SAA faced serious defections, estimated to hover between 4,000 and 7,000 by the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near East Policy to upwards of 40,000 by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Turkish diplomats at last weekend’s 48th International Security Conference in Munich apparently confirmed the 40,000 figure, which would be significant if true, given that the SAA’s strength stood at less than 270,000 men, only a third of whom were actual combat troops.

Desertions

Even if Turkish and FSA claims were exaggerated, around 37 battalions composed of approximately 200-250 men each – of which 17 to 23 were fully active – allowed FSA forces to fight and hold territory, something that can no longer be ignored. More important, with an increasing number of soldiers refusing to fire on demonstrators and, in most cases, protecting the latter from SAA units or Shabiha irregulars, Damascus may yet witness more significant desertions.

For 11 months, most of the fighting occurred in Hama, Homs, Rif Dimashq, Dayr Al Zor, and especially Idlib and Daraa, where significant clashes occurred and continue to grow in intensity. During the past two months, however, the Rif Dimashq governorate, including suburbs of the capital itself (e.g., Douma and Saqba), saw heavy action as well.

Fierce battles

To their credit, FSA units held “territory” in Homs, Hama, and Zabadani, and managed to play a cat and mouse game with SAA troops in Douma as well as in Zabadani, which witnessed fierce battles during the past two weeks as the regime committed at least a brigade-size force, including heavy tanks.

Opposition forces filmed non-negligible losses on armoured vehicles and soft-skinned armoured personnel carriers that necessitated an SAA tactical withdrawal. Nevertheless, as long as Damascus and Aleppo do not join the fray – minor assaults on university students notwithstanding – and as long one or more full brigade defection(s) with a complement of heavy armour does not occur, the FSA will not be a match for the SAA.

In fact, FSA forces lacked supplies, and relied on five sources to replenish themselves: 1) Arms from the regular Syrian Army itself, especially whatever can be carried away by defectors; 2) Weapons brought across the border from Turkey, which is hosting dozens of FSA officers who cross back and forth into Syria with relative ease; 3) Donations from Iraqi Sunni tribes in the Al Anbar Province to their kin; 4) Armaments from Iraqi Kurdistan to their Syrian brethren; and, 5) Hand-held guns in much smaller quantities through northern Lebanon. Clearly, this was not enough and while the SAA failed to end attacks on government forces or eradicate the FSA in any one given area after a year long campaign, the current internal military balance was still lopsided and favoured the regime.

For despite the opposition to the fully equipped army, FSA challenges were non-negligible, including the ability to fight in a coordinated fashion, especially since Ankara imposed an iron clad control over commanders in Turkey whose movements were carefully monitored.

Moreover, and until very recently, it was not clear whether FSA leaders coordinated their efforts with the Syrian National Council mired in interminable discussions. Obviously, both ought to change for concrete improvements to occur on the ground, notwithstanding the international community’s huff and puff over the Russian and Chinese vetoes.

In a strange way, and even if Lavrov claimed last week on Australian television that Russia was “not a friend, … not an ally of President [Al] Assad,” the Russian veto highlighted the Al Assad regime’s intrinsic value: the Tartus military port, major arms deals, and Cold War brinkmanship.

Lavrov explained that Moscow “never said that President [Al] Assad remaining in power [was] the solution to the crisis,” although one wondered whether it looked upon Syria as a client state and wished to control it, which is what all major powers do whether clients have sorely needed natural resources or provide other useful services. Yet, and unlike Washington that earnestly invests in regime change to suit its own interests, Moscow pretends that regime change ought to be left to indigenous populations, without outside interference.

Which throws the ball back at the FSA. Regrettably, the killings continue in Syria because the international community is 11 months late in extending genuine support to the Syrian opposition, even if it might not be too late to change course now that the French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé telegraphed his country’s intentions.

Still, and truth be told, Al Assad and the Baath party will only go when two conditions materialise on the ground: 1) The FSA can cajole a few brigade commanders to defect with several hundred tanks and, 2) An alternative western military strategy can be devised to create safe zones for civilian protesters along the Turkey-Syria border.

Otherwise, everyone should hunker down for a long winter, and an even longer spring.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.

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