By Bruce Mabley
After seven years of fighting, the Syrian conflict continues unabated. Although there are peace efforts underway under various auspices including the United Nations, little real progress has been made. The number of external actors now operating inside Syria has increased over time and in intensity. The slogging goes on with no apparent victor either in the field or at the peace table.
So where is all this going to end up? A return to a re-vitalized Assad dictatorship supported militarily by Russia and Iran? Or, as some observers have suggested, a loose series of enclaves operated by proxy groups and Syrians, or in the best of all possible worlds, a very decentralized series of city states and regions under purely local authority.
The conflict now fully involves proxy actors, many of them from neighboring states. On the Syrian government side, the expansion of the conflict has brought in Russian, Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces to prop up the pro-alawaite regime of Bashar al-Assad. On the rebel side, Turkey continues to support a safe haven for Syrian refugees and fighters. The Kurds, who are no friends of the Turks, are now fully engaged receiving material and training support from Western proxy states like the USA. The Saudis and Qataris, when they are not fighting amongst themselves, find time to assist their religious allies in the Syrian opposition.
The only common point that all these factions seem to have in common is the shared objective of ridding Syria from the Islamic state militants. This objective is now in the process of being achieved in Raqqa and soon Deir ez- Zor.
After seven years of conflict, can we assess with any degree of certainty who is winning the Syrian conflict? Is Bashar going to eventually succeed in quelling the largely Sunni rebellion with his Russian air, sea and land assets? Or, are the rebels going to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime and rewrite the map of the Middle East?
This article proposes a Minority Report, one which is, on the face of it, does not appear very likely to occur. Let me begin my case for a Syrian rebel victory by raising a key point in their favor. It is the reason why, in a significant part, the rebellion began, why it continues and why, in my view it will end with his demise and that of his odious dictatorship. Bashar al-Assad’s and his lack of flexibility and political savvy will be his ultimate downfall.
Two examples illustrate my point. In December of 2016, with the rebels on the run and Aleppo in government hands, Bashar decides to ‘punish’ the rebels by launching a chemical attack in rebel-held Idlib. The international consternation that followed with the accompanying embarrassment caused to his Russian allies has strengthened Western resolve and material aid to the anti-government Kurds and Syrian rebels. Moreover, there is evidence that the Russian negotiating stance has been confounded on a number of occasions by Bashar’s (c’est moi ou le déluge) philosophy.
In addition, Bashar’s inflexibility and inability to talk to the opposition is a serious handicap for the government side. The post-Aleppo period illustrates his lack of political timing and dubious military strategy.
Yet, the Syrian opposition is extremely heteroclite and full of fractious groups of armed individuals whose only common cement is their hatred of the Assad government. They are a combination of secular and non-secular Islamist groups of highly variable cohesive abilities. Many of the groups are poorly equipped and have little training. At first glance, the eclectic nature of the Syrian armed opposition should make it an easy target for the better equipped government forces especially with Russian air power in the balance. Yet, the variable and unique nature of each groups’ ideological orientation, military training and material make the opposition an impenetrable maze for Syrian intelligence. The usual forms of torture and blackmail yield even less results and do not help the military effort. They only serve to embolden the enemy and increase its determination to resist. The lack of predictability is an invaluable advantage for the Syrian opposition that more than makes up for its lack of cohesion, training and lack of material.
While the presence of proxy fighters is now an essential component to the Assad military strategy, it is also a focal point for the venting of Syrian nationalism. The presence of foreign troops on Syrian soil is a rallying point for Syrian nationalists. Even the Turks have been unable to pressure the Syrian opposition into declaring war on the Kurds or insisting as a sine qua non that peace is only possible in the absence of Bashar al-Assad. The armed Syrian opposition is a citizen’s army and the importance of Syrian nationalism even present in some Syrian Kurds as a motivating force has been greatly underestimated. Heavy reliance on the Russians and Iranian proxies comes at a price – they can be withdrawn as circumstances change and only a fool can ignore their importance during any serious peace negotiations. In this regard, the Syrian opposition is far better placed than the Assad government.
In guerrilla warfare, there is no one military front. There are many fronts and the Syrian opposition, given its regional and eclectic nature, is proof of this. Often the prevailing authority will seek to eradicate the opposition in one big offensive like the one against Aleppo. The reality is different in guerilla warfare. Like so many pin pricks, the government troops are in constant movement attempting to quell dozens of brush fires some of which are very close to the capital. Opposition activities close to the capital are especially concerning for a regime that seek hegemony throughout the country. Attacks near the capital have a negative impact on government moral and tend to highlight its lack of favor amongst the population. In 2017, fighting in the suburbs of Damascus (eastern Ghouta and Jobar, just 2 kilometers from the old city walls) are illustrations of how close the opposition is active in and around the Syrian capital.
Castro’s success in Cuba was built upon this multi-faceted approach, which the Syrian armed opposition has adopted by necessity and by virtue of its unique development. Aleppo was a tough blow but by no means fatal. Contrary to the Cuban example, the Syrian opposition does not present a united front galvanized by one ideological perspective. Nor does it have one charismatic leader like Fidel Castro or Che Guevara. Instead, the opposition permits one to believe that, if they are victorious, it might have a better chance at becoming a more democratic state than the one-party Cuban state. The unique Syrian mosiaque of religions, tribes, generations and ethnicities forecasts an inclusive participatory post-conflict political solution.
Early in the Syrian conflict, a Free Syrian commander confided that he was hoping for a more vigorous Western response to the brutal tactics employed by the Bashar al-Assad government. My gentle warning to him was not to hope for such aid since it would probably not be forthcoming, and, even if it were, it would be better for the rebels to depend on Syrian ingenuity and determination ensuring a truly independent victory. So far, the first of these predictions one has proved true. The question is now whether the Syrian opposition will rise to the occasion and cause the surprise few are willing to consider plausible.
The progress of humanity demands no less.
*Bruce Mabley is a former Canadian diplomat having served in the Middle East, and is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau think tank in Montreal.