Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A bridge too far in Syria

Despite recent opposition victories, the battle to dislodge the Syrian regime is likely to be a long and hard one, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Syria’s armed opposition forced the regime’s army and allied militias to retreat on more than one front last month. But even with the town of Idlib entirely in the hands of the resistance and the south of the country mostly prised out of the regime’s hands, there is no end in sight to the country’s four-year ordeal, either on the battlefield or through diplomacy.

However, this is not the impression given by various opposition groups, including the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF). Some NCSROF leaders, speaking prematurely, have even claimed that the Syrian opposition is close to a final victory and one that heralds the regime’s collapse.

In the towns of Daraa, Idlib, Aleppo and elsewhere, the regime is indeed on the defensive, its troops suffering heavy casualties or even retreating without giving battle. But putting pressure on the regime is one thing and predicting its imminent collapse is quite another.

Over the past few weeks, Turkey-based pro-opposition media have been filled with assurances that the regime is teetering, that insiders are planning a coup, and that the Alawites are abandoning the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. However, none of this makes sense.

The Syrian crisis is more complex than Al-Assad’s critics are willing to admit, and there are at least three reasons why the regime is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

The first is that it has marshalled the country’s resources behind one goal – its own survival. The Al-Assad regime has used the army and security services in its war, turning the country’s ministries and institutions into instruments of control.

It has converted hundreds of hospitals and schools into military barracks and seized millions of dollars from the state’s coffers to bribe its way to undeserved longevity. The country may even starve to death before the regime runs out of cash.

The second is the regime’s hold over the country’s Alawite minority. Long before the troubles started, the regime had made sure that the top brass and senior security chiefs were all Alawites. So although the army is not what it used to be, it is still firmly under the regime’s control.

Some 100,000 army personnel have defected during the last four years, and 50,000 other have been killed, but the regime still has nearly 500,000 men under arms in the military and security forces. Tens of thousands of Alawite young men have joined the regime’s undisciplined, but lethal, militia outfits.

The regime is willing to send all of these to certain deaths before it gives up its grip on power.

The third reason is international. The regime has sold out to Iran, forfeiting much of its decision-making powers to Tehran which has offered it essential economic and military help and helped to ensure its survival against the odds. Iran may not care if the Syrian people survive, but it will back the Damascus regime to the bitter end.

All these reasons debunk what opposition politicians say about imminent victory. The field commanders make no such promises, and most assert that victory is still a bridge too far, that the struggle will be long and hard, and any victories slow and incremental.

Essam Al-Rayyes, a spokesman for the Southern Front, an opposition coalition of 35,000 fighters now in control of most of southern Syria and all the border crossings into Jordan, said the battle was likely to be a long one.

“Ours is a hit-and-run war. Our fighters have the advantage of fighting on their home turf. They know the geography of the land, and they know they are fighting a war of liberation against foreign occupiers such as Hizbullah, Iran and the Afghan and Iraqi militias,” Al-Rayyes said.

“But we have no intention of opening new fronts in Damascus for the time being. The task is very complex and calls for weapons we don’t have,” he added, noting that the Southern Front lacked not only weapons but also humanitarian supplies “to assist civilians who have fled from the bombardments of the regime”.

However, opposition politicians go on giving the Syrians false hopes, just as they have done many times in the past. In the early months of the conflict, these same politicians, often interviewed in luxury hotels abroad, promised that foreign intervention was imminent, that advanced weapons were on their way, and that a split within the regime meant a coup was inevitable.

This was bad for morale and bad for the resistance, whose ranks swelled with volunteers wishing to bring the war to the speedy conclusion that has remained elusive to this day. As the conflict dragged on, the claims turned out to be unsubstantiated, but the politicians now seem to be making the same mistakes all over again.

We now know how reluctant the international community is to help the Syrian Revolution. We know the quality weapons the opposition has been promised are unlikely to materialise. We also know that Iran and Russia are unlikely to ditch their ally in Damascus anytime soon.

Yet, despite all the help the regime has been getting, and the help the opposition has been denied, Al-Assad has been unable to achieve a military victory, or even to form his sectarian rump state.

Iyad Eissa, a Syrian opposition journalist, believes that an Alawite canton in Syria will be hard to create or defend. “Iran and Russia cannot impose or protect an Alawite canton,” Eissa said.

It would take the “entire Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel, working around the clock indefinitely,” to protect the Alawite mini-state the regime is thought to be hoping to establish in Damascus, the coast and the central zone of the country, he added.

In order to create such a mini-state, the regime would have to engage in “ethnic cleansing against more than half the population of these areas, including Sunnis, Christians, Ismailis and even Alawites who oppose the secession for patriotic or economic reasons,” Eissa noted.

Syrian opposition member Fawwaz Tallo believes the opposition can defeat Al-Assad, but not without international support. “If we had had enough ammunition and anti-armour rocket launchers, we could have brought the regime down within two months,” Tallo said.

But the US was “stifling” the Syrian Revolution. According to Osama Abu Zeid, the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) legal advisor, the opposition has “thousands of moderate fighters” the US is unwilling to work with.

“We are not part of the [US] training programme because this focusses on defeating Islamic State, while leaving the Al-Assad regime alone,” Abu Zeid said. In his view, the “US administration has no clear strategy in Syria” and has no intention of setting up a buffer zone to protect civilians or give the opposition weapons with which to overpower the regime.

Thus far, the military achievements of the opposition remain incremental and tactical in nature.

But if it could maintain the military pressure on the regime, it would boost chances of finding a political solution along the lines of the Geneva Declaration, with a transitional government that is fully empowered to hold elections, purge corruption, and put the country on a solid path to a future of coexistence and justice for all.

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