Thursday, 8 August 2013

Syrian War Update: Regime obstacles in advances against rebel forces

As the Syrian war develops into the third quarter of 2013, a number of trends are being reinforced which appear to be affecting the conflict in important ways. External factors are changing the combat environment for both sides due to an exhaustion of resources from domestic sources. Foreign government support is perpetuating the conflict but neither the regime nor the rebel groups are gaining enough ground to force the other into capitulation.

A Syrian rebel fighter holds his position in the
southern Syrian town of Maaret al-Numan - (AFP)
Despite the rebel advances over the past few months, regime forces are still holding the most important section of Syria. Rebel blocking positions - reinforced by captured regime weapons - coupled with increasing amounts of arms supplied by Western governments will continue to frustrate regime forces into the closing stages of the year.

While loyalist troops have been unable to press their advance and retake the key city of Aleppo in the north, the regime does have the momentum to undermine rebel positions if it can maintain its supply routes and hold onto the Syrian core. Even with recent rebel battlefield successes in Homs and Latakia, Syrian President Bashar al Assad is closer to tipping the balance towards his loyalist forces as rebel momentum in the far south begins to show signs of faltering.

War update

Syria has effectively been split into three pieces over the past two years of fighting. Syrian loyalist forces continue to hold key regions in the south of the country, leaving areas in the north and east largely ungoverned by Damascus and in the hands of sectarian militants and other rebel groups. The regions can be retaken in the future; it is the core which demands regime troops’ attention.

The Syrian provinces considered of the utmost importance for Mr al Assad extend in an arc from Damascus in the south, through Homs and towards Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. The regime considers this region their homeland, and many of their ethnic Alawite kinsfolk live along this corridor.

Aside from this corridor, two other distinct sections in Syria have been carved out by conflict. One of these regions, controlled by the various rebel groups, cuts a chunk of Syria from Idlib and Aleppo provinces in the north running south towards the Euphrates River on the Iraqi border. Over this border, rebel groups and Sunni al-Qaeda-affiliated militants have been moving weapons and smuggling goods to fund the Syrian rebel groups.

The porous Syria-Iraq border has also seen Sunni militant groups infiltrating Iraq to break Iraqi stability over the past few months by conducting terrorist attacks on Shiite targets. This section of Syria is now completely beyond Damascus’ control and has been for almost a year. Even Baghdad struggles to influence those vast stretches of desert, leaving it almost entirely in the hands of Syrian rebels.

The third section of Syria is the isolated northeastern triangle where Syria’s Kurdish community are governing the land in a semi-autonomous fashion under heavy surveillance by Turkish security services. The Kurds have committed alliances with neither of the Syrian belligerents slugging out the conflict in the country’s south. Kurdish neutrality does not seem to be bothering Damascus at the moment. However, the temporary governance of their traditional lands is not expected to become permanent.

This is all to say that Syria as viewed on an average world map - with demarcated international borders and recognised towns and cities - is simply not the reality any more. The country has split along distinct sectarian lines, and each day those lines shift as if nudged by the desert winds. Mr al Assad may still call himself the President of Syria, but as pointed out in a previous analysis on this site, he is better described today as Syria’s most powerful warlord.

Syria has fractured into three regions over the past year
Those of Mr al Assad’s countrymen who have taken up arms against him control a fair chunk of Syrian lands, but are nowhere near as powerful as they need to be if they wish to oust him from his Damascus stronghold. While rebel groups are still unable to coalesce around a single unified entity - the main reason international recognition for the rebels is still lacking - they are nevertheless receiving small-arms and other weapons from foreign benefactors as diverse as the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.

Syrian rebels were pushing south in a number of places last month, using captured regime weapons as loyalist forces retreated to better-defended sanctuaries. Several rebel units have released videos of these captured arms, including French MILANs and Russian 9K111 Fagots, 9M113 Konkurs and 9M113 Kornets. Some of these weapons are powerful and effective anti-armour guns. Regime forces now face greater risk of interdiction along logistical supply routes if rebel forces can bring those weapons to bear. The rebels also have been receiving anti-tank guided missiles from abroad which will cause regime troops to think twice before moving their T-72 main battle tanks and armoured vehicles into built-up towns.

It is already clear Syrian rebels have quickly employed these weapons on various parts of the battlefield. Reports indicate August 6 that rebels with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, along with other Syrian rebel groups, have taken control of the Minnigh air base, a key facility in the province of Aleppo, after a months-long battle against Syrian regime forces. Two days later on August 8, the Tahrir al-Sham rebel brigade, a unit of the Free Syrian Army, claims it attacked the motorcade of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Fortunately for the regime, a statement by the brigade declared Mr al Assad was not hit, but that based on sources within the regime, there were casualties.

However, despite the captured weapons and foreign arms assistance, rebel groups are still heavily outgunned and face an uphill struggle. Regime forces are still receiving weapons from both Iran and Russia, with neither government willing to respond to international calls to remove their support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

The Syrian airforce and significant groups of armour continue to pound rebel positions in the north of the country. On August 7 at least 62 Syrian rebels were killed during a dawn ambush by Syrian regime forces. The ambush occurred near Adra, a town east of Damascus. Syrian state news agency SANA did not report how many rebels were killed but said they were from the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front.

There also remain consistent rumours that rebel groups could be receiving man-portable air-defence weapons (MANPADS) from Western nations, alongside anti-tank weapons, such as the 9K33 Osa surface-to-air missile systems. Internet videos of MANPADS being used to interdict regime rotary wing aircraft appear to be changing Syrian airforce approach patterns to higher altitudes to avoid attracting these SAMs. However, such weapons are difficult to maintain and specifically mentioned in U.S. and British intelligence reports as the least desirable weapons-system to supply to Syrian rebel groups over fears they could spread around the adjoining region and fall into the hands of terrorist groups.

So long as Syrian President Bashar al Assad retains control over the core Alawite regions and maintains protected transport routes to the coast, he will have the strategic upper hand. Regaining control of the north and east of Syria will be a gradual, crawling objective which his regime forces can chip away at over time. Likewise, rebel positions in the north and east are similarly well-insulated from regime control and as long as rebel groups can keep from internecine fighting, they too will simply need to chip away at regime-controlled territory.

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