|The military situation in Syria, April 2013 (source)|
Syria is the name on everyone’s lips at the moment, and there remain many questions to be answered about this conflict. Did Assad use chemical weapons? Might it have been the rebels instead? Should the West intervene? Even if we do, can we do anything to help the Syrian people? Are the rebels worth backing? Today, I want to see if I can answer some of these questions, and perhaps provide a perspective of what may happen next.
To begin, let’s consider the geography of Syria, with reference to this map and this one. From the former, we can see that Syria is not a particularly hilly country, and with reference to the map at the top of this article, we can see that the most mountainous areas are held by the Assad regime. A flat landscape is hardly ideal terrain for an insurgency. Furthermore, Syria’s largest cities – Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Latakia – are all in the west, or in other words, with reference to the above map, and this map of territorial control, all within the territory held by the Assad regime.
Now let’s consider the factor that makes the Middle East so volatile – oil. Prior to the civil war, at least 62% of Syria’s exports were based around oil. Judging by this map of Syria's oil fields, there seems to be a roughly 50/50 split of control between the rebels and the regime. However, oil may well be a red herring in the conflict: there is no point holding an oil field if you can’t ship it out, and the roads and pipelines are still contested. However, Assad holds the Mediterranean ports, which in the long run, could give him the advantage in petroleum politics.
An “unknown unknown”, to quote Rumsfeld, is food. With reference to this map of Syria's wheat production, the rebels seem to control the richest agricultural areas. However, Assad’s forces hold the provincial capitals responsible for the administration of agriculture and the distribution of vital resources such as fertiliser, spare machine parts, and fuel. A report by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization found that wheat and barley production fell to two million tonnes in 2012 from its normal level of 4-4.5 million tonnes. Only 45 per cent of farmers were able to harvest their cereal crops due to security issues and a lack of fuel for harvesting equipment. Syrian farmers were also facing a shortage of fertiliser and quality seed to plant for this year's crop. The report also found a 60 per cent drop in vegetable production in the key conflict area of Homs. The area along the Euphrates, which we might expect to be lush, fertile and productive, is also reported to be ravaged with drought (in fact, Assad’s inability to respond to that crisis is credited as being one of the factors that started the Syrian revolution).
So based on all of this, we can come to a few conclusions: Assad is winning the war. He controls the major cities, and so roughly 60% of the country’s population. Controlling a greater mass of the population than the rebels increases his government’s legitimacy, as well as giving him a much larger pool for recruitment for his army. The fact that many of these recruits and conscripts will be city-dwellers also suggests that they will be better-educated and more literate than the rural population, thus making them easier to train.
Assad had also cleared out the centre of Damascus, and the Battle of Homs is winding down. Aleppo appears far more uncertain for the rebels than it did a year ago. Additionally, Assad’s forces have retaken the Latakia Governorate, thus securing his support base among the Alawite people, shown on this ethno-religious map of Syria. He also controls the entire Mediterranean coast, thus securing his supply lines through control of the ports and enabling him to control aid shipments. The regime not controlling arable land may not be a problem as long as aid from Russia keeps coming in through the Mediterranean ports. With this in mind, as well as the drought in the east, and his control of the region on the coast that receives the rain belt from the Mediterranean, Assad may just be in a better food situation than the rebels.
To the rebels’ credit, however, they control the strategic border zone with Turkey. A number of prominent roads run through this region between the two countries, thus the rebels’ supply line is secured. As long as the rebels hold that border zone, the war will continue, and it is a very long border. Assad may have the population advantage, but owing to the sheer size of the border and the need to secure Aleppo before any further moves north can be made, he will not be ending the war any time soon.
Based on all this, let’s consider the question on everyone’s lips: Did Assad use chemical weapons? There are two possible answers to this. My personal belief is that he did not use chemical weapons, or if regime forces did use them, it was not on his orders. Assad is winning, however slowly, and did not need something like this to draw the ire, and possibly the bombs, of Western powers. Alternatively, the chemical weapon attacks could well be the act of a rational mind. So many atrocities have taken place in Syria already (including an unconfirmed use of chemical weapons before the recent attacks) that Assad may well have thought that he could call America’s bluff, with the Russians protecting him. A false flag operation is just as possible however. So many army depots have changed hands since the start of the war that it is not inconceivable that chemical weapons may have fallen into rebel hands. The rebels may well believe that a Western intervention to punish Assad for supposed use of chemical weapons is just what they need to turn the war around to their favour.
But assuming Assad did order the chemical strike, could a Western intervention help the people of Syria? Under the current plans, no. The draft resolution currently going through the United States Congress restricts any operation to a “limited and tailored use of the United States Armed Forces against Syria”, and bans the use of any ground forces, This would naturally involve cruise missile strikes and potentially bombing from carrier-based aircraft. The likelihood of these completely neutralising Assad’s chemical weapons is slim, however. Much has been spoken of Assad’s powerful air defence network, and this, coupled with the risk of chemicals leaking during the strikes, and with no appetite in the West for the scale of a mission necessary to locate, capture and neutralise the regime’s chemical weapons, the punitive strikes are expected to be more symbolic than effective in preventing future use of chemical weapons. Furthermore, what about Assad’s conventional weapons? The U.S. government put the death toll from the chemical strike at 1,429. A shocking figure, certainly, but if the UN-calculated death toll of 100,000 is correct, then the same number of people have been killed by conventional weapons every two weeks since the civil war began!
To summarise, the Syrian Civil War is far from over, but, assuming the West does not intervene, then the turning point may have been passed. Assad will probably eventually win, but only at the cost of years-more misery for the people of Syria. However much we may wish to do something to stop innocent civilians being gassed, there is little the West can do. An intervention will be symbolic at best, utterly ineffective at worst, and it will do nothing to end the violence.