March 2, 2012
Syria’s Perpetuating Stalemate
On Thursday the Syrian military claimed victory on the battlefield by “cleansing” “foreign-backed armed groups of terrorists" in Homs, one of the revolutionary epicenters against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Exact casualty figures of the month-long siege cannot be produced, but estimates range into the high hundreds. Syria’s Local Coordination Committees counted 24 deaths on Thursday, 45 nationwide, and the environment inside Baba Amr district has decayed to total war. Monitoring a purported battle between military forces and 2,000 insurgents, one Free Syrian Army (FSA) member said, "The regime was going for a full-on massacre” before the rebels ordered an evacuation under artillery fire. The local rebel brigade of the FSA issued a statement warning, "Assad's army has destroyed most of the homes in the neighborhood.” The group described its retreat as a “tactical decision,” citing "worsening humanitarian conditions, lack of food and medicine and water, electricity and communication cuts as well as shortages in weapons."
Of the 100,000 people living in Baba Amr prior to the revolution, an estimated 4,000 remain trapped in its hellish conditions. Political officials from Western and Gulf powers, UN representatives and human rights groups are calling for an immediate ceasefire to open humanitarian corridors, but these efforts have only yielded minimal results as al-Assad finishes his latest crackdown. Now the Red Cross will allegedly be granted access into Homs - under strict supervision from authorities.
"We got a green light to enter Baba Amr from the Syrian government,” said Hicham Hassan, Middle East spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). “At the same time, we got a call from the opposition saying, 'We need you to get here.”
Access has since been denied by al-Assad’s regime.
The international reaction to the Syrian opposition’s military position is equally dire, with many actors and observers pointing out the overwhelming disparity in numbers, training and equipment. Regardless of the force - national or international - al-Assad’s opponents face a harder, deeper battle than Libya’s weakened military offered. The New York Times listed most of his military advantages: conventional firepower (tanks, artillery, assault helicopters, fighter planes), between 250,000 and 500,000 soldiers, at least 60,000 members of special forces and intelligence units, and a Shia Alawite backbone of officers. All of these realities are true to varying degrees, but they aren’t usual in an asymmetric conflict. Military analysts predict that al-Assad will now turn his attention north to crush Hama, subdue the unstable Idlib Province, and attempt to put a series of nails into Syria’s revolution. In doing so al-Assad will push Syria’s civil war closer to its formal beginning than its end.
"We will return, God willing," Baba Amr’s rebels predicted.
Syria’s military conditions do not favor the opposition and may never tilt towards their cause. Instead Syria’s revolutionaries must follow an extended line of insurgencies by toppling their regime through unconventional tactics and strategies. To achieve victory, an insurgency must accumulate an evolving set of military hardware and train its fighters up to military standard. More important, though, is the fusion of military and non-military strategies; revolution is a political conflict first, military conflict second. For this reason the Syrian National Council (SNC) has been under intense pressure to coalesce and install a command structure over the FSA (and local militias).
"The two organizations are separate,” Ambassador Robert Ford told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday. “There is not a hierarchy between them. They are not organically linked.”
Increased organization would facilitate its communication between local protesters, civil activists, political representatives, military elements and foreign capitals. For now the SNC is focused on opening a military office to coordinate field operations and receive international arms. Chairman Burhan Ghalioun said the council is also attempting to unify all military resistance to al-Assad’s regime: "We want to control the use of weapons so that there won't be a civil war. Our aim is to help avoid civil war." However the council acknowledged that stalemate is inevitable. Mustafa Hamitoglu, an Istanbul-based member, addressed a wide audience by cautioning, “So long as the deadlock continues, there’s always a risk of civil war, and the responsibility for that won’t be SNC’s alone, but also of those who don’t support the Free Syrian Army and block solutions.”
As a result of al-Assad’s ongoing military and political actions, Syria’s international brinksmanship is due to enter a new stage of confusion. Both Ghalioun and Hamitoglu issued statements to the effect that “the situation can only be resolved by taking up arms,” a position that will add complications to the UN’s involvement. The standoff between Washington and Moscow remains deadlocked despite an apparent consensus over Yemen’s “model,” but Syria’s opposition is outgrowing the Arab League’s power-sharing initiative. Russia and Beijing also voted down another resolution in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), suggesting that both capitals possess more breathing room than estimated.
Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, America’s representative to the council, told reporters, “The three countries that chose to vote ‘no’ at the Human Rights Council today find themselves isolated from the strong international consensus on the need to protect the people of Syria.”
Unfortunately the two countries display no tangible signs of changing their fundamental position in the near-term. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is one of many Western officials to pull Moscow away from “the wrong side of history,” hoping, "Maybe there will be an opportunity for new consideration after the presidential elections.” Except this thinking makes little sense given that Vladimir Putin, the presumed victor of March 4th’s election, is holding to a strict non-interventionist line in Syria. A joint-statement from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi “stressed their countries' unified stances against any direct or indirect encouragement from the outside.”
Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. Assistance Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, would tell the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, "It's not clear to us that arming people right now will either save lives or lead to the demise of the Assad regime.” However the consequences of military inaction are clear: failure to materially assist Syria’s revolutionaries will prolong the conflict, take more lives, and increase the odds of regional warfare. The Pentagon has reportedly reached the conclusion that al-Assad’s regime has yet to fracture and has “dug in,” and the same assessment can be applied to Syria’s revolutionaries.
Whether or not foreign powers decide to arm them, a protracted insurgency could easily stretch into this decade and possibly beyond.