The Syrian Maelstrom

By Dan Challacombe

All views are the author’s own.

Assad pictured here with General Dawoud Rajha, Defence Minister, killed in Wednesday’s bombing.

The 18th of July 2012 proved to be a momentous day for Syria, with fighting intensifying across the country.  Report after report came in detailing the events as they happened throughout the day.  The very heart of Bashar al-Assad’s government was struck by an attack, allegedly a suicide bombing, which targeted a meeting of some the Syrian regime’s most senior figures and claimed the lives of the Minister of Defence and Minister of the Interior, among others. Within an hour more news came through of another explosion, this time targeting the headquarters of the Syrian Arab Army’s main garrison unit in the city of Damascus. Throughout the afternoon Syrian state television broadcast pictures of government forces engaged in fierce street battles with unseen and unidentified enemies, while reports flooded into Western news agencies detailing the shelling of civilian neighbourhoods, the collapse of military units and more high-profile defections from Assad’s regime. Many have today asked what the future holds for Syria, and questions are also being asked about how the International Community can, or perhaps more realistically will, respond to a change in government.

Map showing the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Perhaps more serious, however, is the greater concern over Syria’s remaining capabilities. Despite the fact that large parts of the country are out of the government’s control, the Syrian State still packs a punch fearsome enough to discourage its rivals from intervening in its affairs. Most obviously, American pressure on the Al-Assad regime has been met with increased Syrian hostility towards Israel. The Assad government has long bankrolled and equipped Hezbollah, the Islamist movement which controls much of Southern Lebanon.  Hezbollah is now arguably better placed to strike at Israel than Syria’s regular army, not least since, according to unverified reports circulating since the afternoon of the 18th of July, the Syrian Army has pulled most of its forces out of the highly militarised Golan Heights to reinforce Damascus.  Despite the ferocious campaign mounted by Israel in the summer of 2006 to weaken the movement, Hezbollah maintains a fearsome arsenal of long-range rocket artillery and a sizeable ground force, and should Assad give the command, has the potential to cause Israel considerable problems.  It is worth noting that even in the darkest days of the Israeli invasion in 2006 Hezbollah was still holding back from using its most capable weapons.

In addition Assad can still fall back on his extensive chemical arsenal, reputed to contain the nerve agents Sarin, VX and Tabun. The chemical aspect, alongside those elements of the Syrian conventional arsenal as yet unaffected by the internal strife such as air defence installations and long-range artillery could prove extremely problematic should an external power attempt to use direct action to support the Free Syrian Army. The existing support for the Free Syrian Army from outside,  for example the supply of arms by Qatar and the logistical aid from Turkey and allegedly also the US and the UK  has already caused tension and been used as a pretext for Russia and Iran to make gestures in support of the Syrians.

Russia remains Syria’s strongest Western ally, vetoing UN sanctions for the third time on Thursday.

It has been alleged, without confirmation or independent proof of course, that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is actively involved in fighting the Free Syrian Army, and that a strong force of Russian Naval Infantry are ensuring that the neighbourhood of their base at Tartus remains quiet. Even if these allegations prove to be untrue, Russian support for Assad is still considerable enough to prevent the UN from acting decisively against him. Although Assad’s military has suffered considerably over the course of the uprising and Syria’s economy has effectively been shattered by fighting and limited sanctions, international condemnation alone, it seems, cannot shift Assad from his position of power.

A further concern to those watching developments in Syria will surely be whether the Syria that emerges from the dust will be an open, democratic country or not. Already there have been rumours of Jihadist involvement in the civil war, although it is unclear who they might be fighting for. Pessimists in the West fear that the fall of Assad will open the way for a radicalization of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority and the creation of a new failed state in the heart of the Middle East. Others cite the outpouring of religious sentiment that comes with every turn of the savage conflict as being the beginning of a vicious sectarian battle which may threaten to consume Syria’s minority Christian, Alawite and Druze communities. Certainly, some factions within the Free Syrian Army use the terminology and methods of the extremist militants who fought tenaciously against the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ in Iraq. However, the extent to which there is really a religious element to the war is difficult to gauge. After all, similar religious fervour was expressed during the intense fighting of the Libyan Civil War in 2011, but the successor government to the Colonel Gaddafi’s Jamahiryya has so far proven to be moderate and democratic. Likewise, despite Western fear-mongering, there has not been a collapse in Egypt, despite the election of many moderate religious figures in the first ever truly free elections there. Indeed, the few Syrian voices which have been heard in the West seem to be committed to fair elections and the end of the repressive Ba’athist system.

Regardless of the path Syria chooses on the road to recovery from this devastating conflict, however, one thing is clear. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been dealt a grave blow in recent days. It still retains formidable power over the lives of millions of innocent people, and it has proved that it is unafraid of employing methods of terror and brutality in crushing its opponents. Now it only remains for the UN to decide on the cost of Syria’s freedom; let us hope that a decision can be reached before that cost becomes too high.

Editor’s Note:  Since Wednesday 18th July, Free Syrian Army forces have taken border posts on the Iraqi and Turkish borders, creating hugely valuable ‘safe zones’ through which arms may be transported into Syria.  In addition, the FSA has begun to move into Damascus itself, with fierce fighting raging through the streets, and thousands fleeing their homes.  The conflict has reached a crucial point, with one historian labelling current FSA actions as a ‘guerrilla war’.  We shall be watching with great interest the developments of the coming weeks.  Are Assad’s days now truly numbered?

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