Tuesday, 14 August 2012

High-level defections in Syria add to already deep tensions

Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government welcomes discussions with Syrian opposition groups, Syrian Ambassador to Iran Hamed Hassan said August 13. Discussion, as always, is a good thing, but the Syrian leader is not willingly choosing to enter into talks. Events are forcing al Assad to consider his future and that of his country. A future he may not a part of.

Meanwhile in Turkey, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Turkish officials and opponents of al Assad in Istanbul on August 11 to discuss options and a closure to the internecine fighting in Syria.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Syrian President Bashar al Assad will probably not make it through his country’s unrest unscathed. Not only has the fighting extended to over a year without resolution, al Assad’s generals and supporters appear to believe their interests might be better served apart from him.

Some, like Brigadier General Nasr Mustafa, prefer to abandon ship by directly leaping into the adjacent vessel. On August 2, Mustafa announced his defection to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA is the simple acronym used, somewhat confusingly, to describe the disparate and belligerent Syrian rebel groups.

Mustafa’s defection is significant, because he is an Alawite. Mustafa’s decision to defect hints at al Assad’s quickening loss of control over his core Alawite kin. As a critical element to his power, al Assad has needed to fortify the Alawite community behind him. Being part of a minority, as the Alawites are, is a serious weak-point in most governments and one al Assad is determined not to break. Losing a heavy figure such as Mustafa may encourage other Alawites to defect, although only a few have done so at this point.

But other high-level defections among other ethnic groups are putting more pressure on the incumbent regime. The Tlass family was the most important Sunni regime loyalist to leave al Assad before Mustafa. Turkish officials are treating the Tlass family respectfully, indicating the family still has clout in the region. In discussions around whom or what will replace al Assad, Manaf Tlass will be high on the list of candidates.

So each passing week without resolution brings al Assad closer to doom. Not because of any self-imagined invulnerability of the rebellion, but because the mounting distrust within his cabinet in Damascus will overflow. The Syrian regime doesn’t depend strictly on al Assad as a figurehead; many others in the government are just as important. However, the fall of al Assad would do measurable harm to the continuity of his Baath Party regime.

Despite all this internal tension, the regime troops continue to fight the opposition throughout the country. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city has been ground-zero for a large troop deployment over the past week. Since the battle began on July 19, rebels have held some neighbourhoods securely and retreating from others. Losses on both sides are surely mounting as artillery fires and armour rolls in, but neither seems to be gaining the upper hand. Indeed, the logistics of both sides are straining and fresh supplies into the city could be drying up.

Al Assad’s troops have been drawn from other towns inside Syria to attend the surge against rebel-controlled Aleppo. This strategy has lowered security in other sectors and could result in the amorphous opposition quietly spreading back in. Having removed these fighters before, the Syrian military would again find these towns occupied.

This latest siege on Aleppo also brings foreign intervention into question again. The United States said August 13 that it has detected an increase in Syrian regime air attacks on opposition elements. The White House and the Pentagon appeared undecided on the potential imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria. Pentagon spokesman George Little said there has been an increase in air attacks perpetrated by the Syrian regime on its own people, but he did not comment on the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone. Officials in the White House said the current path of economic sanctions and international pressure leveraged against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad is the "right course."

Some foreign reports (veracity not guaranteed) indicate the FSA may have acquired heavy weapons including surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank munitions. If this is true then it would go some way in explaining the stalemate in Aleppo and lend some credence to a recent FSA claim of shooting down a Syrian MiG fighter. Regardless of whether the opposition is deploying new weapon systems, the limited size of the rebellion and their lack of tactical knowledge is limiting their ability to bring defeat to al Assad.

The Syrian regime considers Aleppo to be of extreme importance. Both as a strategic asset and a psychological milestone, the loss or retention of Aleppo will be a turning point for the regime. The repositioning of troops and concentration of firepower in and around the city are leaving vulnerable critical supply routes in the West and South. Many ambushes have occurred as these troops move towards Aleppo.

The Syrian military do appear to be willing to continue the fight for now, but their ambition and motivation may be dimming. It must be difficult to fire on your own countrymen, yet they have managed to do just that for the past 12 months or more. Yet at the rate that Syrian generals and regime supporters defect troop morale is in jeopardy of failing. The longer the fighting continues and the more discredited al Assad becomes the less the troops will want to fire their weapons.

Al Assad showed strength by downing two Turkish reconnaissance jets last month and pushing out a concerted attack on Damascus. He has demonstrated that the Syrian army can deploy wherever it wishes without impediment and lay siege to whichever town it pleases with impunity. He has also received on-going implicit, and in some cases explicit, support from both his Iranian patrons and their Lebanese proxies Hezbollah.

Yet not being able to quell the rebellion in the early or even middle stages, al Assad has displayed he cannot win this struggle through violence.

The generals around al Assad realise this and are making plans for a post-al Assad reality. It will come soon and given the retributive history of Syria and the Levant, it would be wise to ensure one is on the winning side. These generals are currently happy to associate themselves with al Assad’s regime, so long as it is winning. But as is expected from positions of power, no loyalty is forever binding.

Given the recent bombing that killed top regime members and the recent defections of Alawite loyalists al Assad will be quietly questioning which amongst his supporters are trustworthy. It is common for a regime to collapse internally long before any outside pressure could achieve it. Indeed if the external threats continue to simmer in the countryside without resolution then those too impatient or those already contemplating defection will play their hand.

The Syrian regime now faces its greatest test. No longer does the rebellion unite the regime members in nationalistic pride. Kofi Annan, the United Nations consul to Syria, suggested to a mostly receptive international community before departing the country that an amalgamation between FSA and regime supporters would be prudent. The solution, Annan said, was not in one side finding victory over the other, but in moving into the future together.  

Al Assad may still have a role to play in the end, but his options are limited. He may find a country willing to grant asylum or one to escape the long arm of the International Criminal Court (ICC). But a man cornered is a vicious prospect. The ICC has many benefits, but it does not encourage a government head accused of crimes against humanity to turn himself in. Perhaps al Assad will escape to northern Lebanon where his Alawite sect largely resides, although it is doubtful such a final measure would save him from an incensed, and by then victorious, new Syrian government.

The crisis in Syria is creating an unstable environment for al Assad and his supporters. However the fighting in Aleppo ends, it will have a lasting effect on the durability of the regime as elite members of the Syrian intelligence community and top-level military defections continue.

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