Friday, 15 March 2013

In Syria, Rebels Gain Ground But Draw Closer To Stalemate

In the first quarter of 2013 Syria is beginning to reflect less of a sovereign state and more like Lebanon at the height of their violent sectarian splits. Syrian President Bashar al Assad no longer controls huge sections of his country, and is unlikely to regain them in the near term.

He is essentially now the country’s strongest warlord with the most capable military equipment, concentrating his forces on strategically important towns and supply lines. Because of this, Mr al Assad still has the upper hand for a number of reasons:

First, the Syrian Air Force is largely still intact and loyal. Although there are signs munitions are depleting and reports of more anti-aircraft missiles in rebel hands will limit strike and support attacks.

Second, no hard assistance is materialising from outside powers to intervene behind Syrian rebels. Spiralling fragmentation along sectarian lines among the rebels bars western intervention.

Third, the rebels are internally divided between Islamist, less-Islamist, and non-Islamist fighters. Estimates of Jihadist elements fighting in Syria are close to one fifth of total fighters, and rising. Cohesion in strategy is still lacking among Syrian rebels.

After the recent capture of a number of important cities, Syrian rebels are gaining momentum in northern Syria. According to reports, Jabhat al-Nusra, the faction of fighters recently branded as a terrorist organisation by the U.S Department of State, led the attacks in the north.

Regime forces have retained a presence in isolated pockets throughout Syria, but ambush and supply-line attacks are withdrawing troops from the countryside into more defendable areas.

In the east, a temporary alliance of convenience occurred on February 19 between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Sunni Arab rebels with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Connecting these two groups will be highly controversial in the rebel ranks.

The alliance looks good for rebel diversification and points to an inter-ethnic cooperation against regime forces. But while it is a strategic union, it will be temporary. Turkey is also keeping a wary eye on any growing power among the Kurdish population.

In the first quarter, the United States and other western powers could not find sufficient fortitude to intervene on either side. This trend will likely continue into the second quarter.

Although Paris has suggested lifting the EU arms embargo on Syria, Washington is very reluctant to equip what could very easily turn out to be a strong faction of Jihadist fighters if Mr al Assad falls. Syrian rebels are receiving covert military assistance and non-lethal aid from Gulf States and Washington, but it is difficult to see how the rebels can easily defeat Mr al Assad.

Presently, the rebels cannot cohere or convince outside powers to help their cause. Only the flow of arms from Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries is keeping them in the fight. Close to one million refugees depend on the conflict ending soon, but a conclusion is probably not as close as they wish.

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