Monday, 23 December 2013

The Syrian Civil War: End-of-year analysis

The Syrian Civil War, situation November 2013 (source)

In September I wrote an analysis of the situation in the Syrian Civil War. As the year comes to a close, it seems fitting to write another.

As I pointed out in my last analysis, the initiative appears to be with Assad. He has secured his support base in the west of the country, won the Battle of Damascus, and is now in a position to launch offensives against the rest of Syria. These offensives are naturally being made against the strategic road hubs of Homs and Aleppo. Seen on this transport map of Syria, the advantages of possessing both cities are obvious: control of Aleppo will allow Assad access to the routes that run along Syria’s border with Turkey, thus denying the rebels vital supply routes. It will also allow him to isolate the Idlib Governorate, which as show in the map above, has a large rebel presence in the rural areas.

The Syrian Army also appears to be heading towards victory in Homs: in February, they held 80% of the city and were still advancing. Old Homs is the last rebel holdout remaining. Control of Homs gives Assad a route through the heart of Syria’s western oil fields to the crossroads town of Tadmur, from which he can push on to regain full control of Deir ez-Zor. This also brings with it the possibility of denying the rebels valuable arable land along the Euphrates.

As I made clear in my last analysis, however, it is clear that the fighting is far from over: Assad’s struggle to regain control of the country will be long, attritional and bloody. Crucially, however, the opposition appears to be near the breaking point. As we are continually reminded, it is heavily compromised by Islamist groups with links to al-Qaeda. As the fighting drags on, this article makes it clear that the morale of Syria’s middle class is completely broken. By targeting the educated, urban middle class opposition with overwhelming force quickly, Assad has destroyed the group in which moderate support for the rebels could grow. Thus, the opposition has lost its main organisers that can also co-ordinate between disparate rebel groups. For those that remain, the opposition is now far more likely to find its support in the rural, conservative poor, which will only drive it further into the hands of the Islamists.

The opposition is also increasingly fractured. It was reported in The Times on December 4th that General Salim Idris, leader of the Free Syrian Army and generally considered representative of the moderate element in the opposition, had declared war on the al-Qaeda rebel factions. In exchange for Assad’s removal, he offered to join the FSA with the Syrian Army to defeat al-Qaeda. I admit to have been gripped by a moment of idealistic wishful thinking when I heard this: might Assad have agreed to resign in exchange for comfortable exile? Or might the Army have seen this as an opportunity to shorten the war and remove him? Unfortunately,  it was subsequently reported that Idris had been forced from his headquarters by the Islamic Front, a group that rejects representative democracy and demands an Islamic state. The calls of the Syrian National Coalition chief of staff, Monzer Akbik, for Western support to build the FSA into a professional, conventional fighting force, unfortunately reek of the desperate death cries of a failing organisation.

In conclusion, we must put aside any notions that the Syrian Civil War can lead to a better democratic Syria. The battle is now between the forces of the dictator Assad and the Islamist, al-Qaeda affiliated groups of the opposition. The moderate, democratic element of the opposition is increasingly marginalised, and the spirit of its main supporters is broken. Assad looks set to win the war, but only after many more months of bloodshed. I hope that this time next year I won’t have to write another one of these. It’s equally possible, however, that I will have to.

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