By Jaya Ramachandran
Covert support for anti-regime fighters in Syria is likely to increase as disillusionment with current diplomatic efforts grows, according to knowledgeable sources. Although Saudi Arabia and Qatar have officially denied reports that they have been supplying arms to rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, arms shipments from the Gulf, including anti-tank weapons, reportedly increased significantly in June, says a new analysis.
But Western involvement is likely to be limited to support activities such as intelligence gathering, coordination, training by special forces and the supply of non-lethal equipment, avers UK-based Maplecroft in the analysis. Such support will of course be extremely important to the anti-regime forces.
Of significant concern, says the report, is the possibility of militant Islamist groups acquiring weapons and increasingly sophisticated arms reaching militants in neighbouring states such as Iraq and Lebanon. In fact, this accounts in large part for the reluctance to arm anti-regime fighters.
Chemical and Biological weapons
Pointing to another important aspect of the situation in Syria, the report says: “Although Pentagon officials stated on July 13 that there is little to suggest that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons have become less secure, contingency plans are likely to have been made to secure stockpiles if necessary.”
A case in point is that in May 2012, the U.S. alongside 18 other countries participated in the Eager Lion military exercise in Jordan which included a strong focus on securing chemical and biological weapons. “As the conflict escalates, it cannot be altogether discounted that the regime will consider using chemical weapons,” according to the Maplecroft analysis.
It refers to the warning by former Syrian ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, following his defection that the regime would likely be prepared to use its chemical weapons if placed under greater pressure. “Whilst the comments may have been largely intended to garner support for stronger international action, the warning should not be ignored given Fares’ familiarity with the modus operandi of the regime,” states the report.
“That said, the operational utility of deploying chemical weapons against an insurgency would be limited – a fact that Bashar al-Assad is likely to be aware of. In fact, it could backfire and accelerate the political fallout.
“Yet, as a reflection of its desperation, the regime may eventually use such weapons in an effort to put down mass uprisings in restive towns. The regime is nonetheless mindful that the use of chemical weapons would reflect Bashar al-Assad’s desperation and may remove Russian and Chinese opposition to stronger action.”
Impact of Damascus Attack
The analysis examines the impact of the attack against the national security building in Damascus – which killed several senior officials on July 18 – on the conflict between supporters of the regime and the armed opposition.
Though the circumstances of the attack are unclear, the impact will be significant, says the analysis. It explains: In view of both the rebel FSA and Jihadist Group ‘The Brigade Of Islam’ having claimed responsibility for the attack, the upper echelons of the regime are likely to be alarmed that one or several assailants were able to target key political figures. Significantly, Defence Minister Dawoud Rajah and President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law and deputy head of the armed forces, Assef Shawkat, both died.
While it has long been evident that Assad is unable to put an end to the uprising, the direct attack targeting the core of the regime could spark mass defections by key civilian and military officials, says an analysis by Maplecroft. “The attack has also landed a major strategic blow to the government given the death of key figures in the security establishment. The response is nonetheless likely to be severe with casualties likely to spike,” says the UK-based company in a new report.
It points out that fighting in central Damascus, which began on July 16, highlights that opposition fighters continue to place regime forces under pressure. However, the Syrian army’s increasing deployment of artillery and helicopter gunships underscores that the regime is prepared to escalate its use of force concurrently with the armed opposition’s improving capabilities, the report adds.
Acknowledging that ongoing skirmishes in the city suggest that anti-regime forces are gaining momentum, the report considers a swift military victory for the rebels in the short term unlikely. “The regime will almost certainly concentrate its forces in the capital and heavier fighting is likely to ensue as a result.”
By declaring a major battle for Damascus, says the report, the armed opposition risks reversing the growing sentiment that it is gaining momentum if regime forces are able to quickly defeat the rebels in the capital or force a retreat. “However, if anti-regime forces can maintain pressure on the regime in the capital over the next weeks, support for the regime is likely to erode further with defections also likely to accelerate significantly,” predicts the report.
Although there have been renewed calls from Western leaders for both sides to work towards a political solution, the failure of the UN-backed Kofi Annan peace plan highlights that the Syrian regime remains determined to hold onto power through the use of force. It is clearly not interested in an externally-brokered political solution.
Similarly, there has been no support amongst opposition groups and forces for a transition which would preserve the current power structure even if President Bashar al-Assad were to step down as part of such an agreement.
Opposition Rejects Ba’athist regime elements
The report says: “Given the degree of force employed by the regime, proposals allowing the upper echelons of the Ba’athist regime to retain representation in a new government are unlikely to materialise. As a result, fighting between regime forces and armed opposition groups will continue with the likelihood of massacres rising as the regime increasingly relies on heavy fire-power to suppress the insurgency.”
The Maplcroft expects the intensity of the conflict to increase – especially as anti-regime forces become better armed – but does not see any portents that either side will be able to gain a decisive victory through the use of force alone in the short term.
“Hollow concessions aside, the regime’s primary approach has been to escalate the use of force in an attempt to subdue the opposition. On a strategic level, it is evident that the violent crackdown has failed to break the will of the opposition as strong-armed resistance continues,” says the report adding: “At the tactical level, the regime retains the advantage although not to the extent that it is able to deal a decisive blow to the armed opposition led by the FSA. Furthermore, government control over the country’s periphery – especially in the north – is waning.”
On the contrary, while the armed opposition has registered a degree of success at the tactical level, it is far from being able to dislodge the regime through force alone. Even with improved accesses to anti-tank weapons, anti-regime fighters are likely to avoid major open engagements with the Syrian army and instead focus on ambushes and operations aimed at wearing down state forces or capturing weapons and ammunition.
Improved access to anti-tank weapons could nonetheless significantly improve the FSA’s defensive capabilities and could allow it greater operational freedom as a result, says the analysis.
The report is of the view that external pressure on the Ba’athist regime is increasing, but it considers decisive action such as military intervention or the establishment of an enforced humanitarian corridor “unlikely in the short term despite the limited impact of diplomatic efforts and sanctions so far.”
It adds: “Staunch opposition from Russia and China to stronger action remains the main stumbling block although the appetite for military intervention amongst Western leaders is also low. Significantly, given the Obama administration’s focus on reaching an agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme through the 5+1 group, any form of involvement in the conflict which could significantly worsen relations with Russia is likely to be avoided.
“The US presidential election in November is also an important factor as the current administration will want to avoid becoming embroiled in the conflict as the race for the U.S. presidency gathers pace.”