By Riad Kahwaji
The Syrian opposition parties have finally succeeded in unifying themselves in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) that was born Nov. 11, after nearly a week of meetings in the Qatari capital of Doha. The new body includes revolutionary and opposition figures and parties from inside and outside Syria and from Islamist and liberal groups, Christians and Muslims. The international community was quick to voice praise and support for the move, and many states promised to recognize NCSROF as the official legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Arab Gulf States and the League of Arab States have already recognized the new body as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. However, the Syrian opposition leaders went into this coalition expecting the international community, especially the West, to double and speed up aid to the Syrian revolution in all its forms: Political, economic, humanitarian and especially military.
While the world watched in cold blood the daily bombardment of Syrian cities and towns by the regime’s air power and artillery, the Syrian rebels were making daily progress on the ground with whatever little help they were getting from businessmen and groups in the region. The progress made in the north and central parts of the country were so big that the rebels have practically paved the way for the establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Syria along the borders with Turkey. Armed with machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades and some heavy weapons they captured from the Syrian regular forces – like mortars, multiple rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns and some tanks – the rebels captured most of the countryside of the provinces of Aleppo and Edlib and good chunks of Latakia and Raqqah provinces.
The most important part in all of the field developments was the rebels’ success in neutralizing the regime’s air defense capabilities in most of northern Syria and around Damascus. The rebels have stormed several air defense bases and destroyed the fire control systems and radars for the surface-to-air missiles there and captured anti-aircraft guns. Images released by the rebels showed them walking around Soviet-era SAM-2, SAM-3, SAM-5, SAM-7 and SAM-9 missiles on launch pads, with their mobile fire-control units and radars on fire or destroyed. The rebels vacated the bases in time before Syrian aircraft bombarded the site to deny the rebels the use of the missiles. Fortunately for the regime the rebels did not have the skills or the know-how to operate the missiles, otherwise they would have been able to establish their own no-fly zones over some areas or provinces. Although rebels were seen carrying some SAM-7 shoulder fired missiles, however for unknown reasons there has not yet been a documented use of these missiles. All of the downed Syrian jets and helicopters so far appear to have been hit by anti-aircraft gunfire. However, Syrian jets have been releasing heat flares during their air raids as a countermeasure to the use of heat-seeking SAM-7s.
The growing size of armed rebels showed they have no lack of manpower. This enabled them to engage the regular troops on various fronts all over the country. The battle of attrition have destroyed a lot of the regimes armor and vehicles, and demoralized many of its forces that did not stand their ground on many occasions when they came under shock attacks by the rebels. The regime seems to have employed strategic bombing from medium altitudes and controlling territory via fire power. It has been fiercely bombarding cities and towns in a clear attempt to turn the civilian population against the rebels. But it does not seem to have worked as the rebels continue to enjoy a lot of public support and the ability to move freely in most parts of the country. The rebels’ possession of anti-aircraft capability has forced the regime’s air power to drop dumb bombs from medium altitudes due to lack of smart weapons in its arsenal. Since the Syrian air force cannot carry out precision strikes it has lost its tactical edge allowing the rebels to advance slowly on the ground especially in mountainous and forest terrains that cover large parts of the Syrian landscape, giving the rebels a good advantage on the ground.
However the death toll amongst the population has been substantial and has exceeded 37,000 killed and tens of thousands injured or displaced. With a daily casualty rate of nearly 100 people the monthly death toll will be nearly 3,000 people. With such high casualty rates and considerable destruction of property, the Syrian population risks becoming radicalized, a threat the international community has to seriously consider in determining whether to intervene soon. The regime has used all it has in its arsenal except chemical weapons and ballistic missiles in hitting densely populated neighborhoods, even in its own capital Damascus in its efforts to crush the 19-month old rebellion. It even used endogenously built primitive bombs in helicopter-borne raids. Footage leaked by Syrian troops showed soldiers on board a helicopter use their cigarettes to light fuses of big canisters rigged with explosives that resemble giant sticks of dynamite, and then dropped them randomly from high altitude on towns and villages. The Syrian people have come to call these bombs the “explosive barrels.” International organizations have even accused the Syrian regime of using cluster bombs in air raids on civilian areas.
So the international community is now facing its ultimate test vis-à-vis the Syrian people. For many months the Western capitals have placed the issue of the unification of the rebels as a precondition for their full support to the Syrian revolution. Now that this objective has been achieved the Syrians, along with the Arab world, anxiously await the West to fulfill its promise, especially that the situation in Syria has become too risky to regional and international stability if it was left on its own without intervention to bring about a quick end to the fighting that has spilled across the borders of Syria’s neighbors, including Israel. Events have proven the Syrian regime’s military is not the formidable force some Western military commanders have described. The loss of popular support and daily assaults on all fronts by determined rebels have taken its toll on the Syrian regular forces plagued with frequent defections within its ranks on all levels. The West can do the whole military support without any troops on the ground through establishing a no-fly zone and supplying rebels with the right weapons. Deprived of any air power the Syrian regime will lose its main killing machine and the collapse of its forces will be sped up substantially. So Washington and the West must step in quickly with their Arab allies to bring about the inevitable end of the Syrian regime before things get any worse or get out of control in such a strategically vital country.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA