Bashar al-Assad vs. the Syrian People
February 17, 2012
As the regime continues its latest offensive, the international community
should exploit its military weaknesses through actions that help level the
battlefield, alter the psychological environment, and increase pressure on
Assad and his forces.
What began in March 2011 as an attempt to suppress peaceful antigovernment
demonstrations has evolved into a war -- one that Bashar al-Assad is now
waging against armed groups and the Syrian people with utter determination
and extreme violence. Viewing the conflict as a life-or-death struggle, the
regime is escalating its use of military force with near total disregard for
the opinions of the outside world. Since late last month, it has used a
combination of strategic, operational, and tactical measures to conduct a
major offensive against the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the popular opposition,
and the areas they control. In doing so, it has revealed its strengths and
weaknesses, suggesting areas of focus for any potential international
military intervention. Ultimately, without armed intervention, substantial
military assistance to the FSA, or both, the best that can be hoped for is a
bloody and protracted war of attrition with an uncertain outcome.
Context and Goals of the Offensive
Several factors sparked the regime offensive in late January. Popular
opposition, as manifested by ongoing demonstrations, continued throughout
the country, with growing unrest in Aleppo and the outskirts of Damascus.
Armed resistance was also expanding. The numbers and capabilities of FSA
personnel, combat elements, and associated armed groups had increased, as
had the frequency and intensity of armed clashes in the Damascus area, Idlib
governorate, and Deraa governorate. These factors, along with loss of
territory to the opposition, gave the impression of declining regime control
of the situation. Assad's forces also faced mounting internal problems:
* Increasing reports of defections, including soldiers with armored
* Defections from key regime security units, including the 4th
* Reported loss of fighting spirit among some forces.
* A decline in operational readiness among both men and equipment,
stemming from the high operational tempo the regime had been forced to
maintain in response to expanding opposition.
At the same time, some elements of the situation worked to the regime's
advantage. Arab League monitors had departed the country, clearing the way
for even more aggressive operations. And the international response to the
situation remained largely ineffectual, limited to diplomatic and economic
measures and excluding the use of force. Assad still had the full backing of
Russia and Iran, which provided political and military support while
blocking any effective international action.
The resultant offensive seems to have multiple goals. First, the regime
likely hopes to reverse the momentum that the opposition gained in December
and January. Second, it aims to reduce the threat from the FSA by killing
its leaders in Syria, attriting its personnel, and breaking its hold on
urban areas. Third, it likely hopes to sever the growing bond between the
people and the FSA. Fourth, it seeks to retake territory it has lost to the
FSA and the popular opposition. And fifth, it likely feels compelled to
reassure Moscow and Tehran that it remains in control of the situation.
Strategy and Operations
Although the regime has a large number of forces -- up to several hundred
thousand military and security personnel, depending on how they are counted
-- it cannot conduct large-scale multi-brigade/divisional offensives in all
areas of unrest simultaneously. In areas where the FSA is embedded, Assad
must use significant forces combining armor, infantry, and artillery.
The current offensive has unfolded in phases. The first phase, which began
around January 25, involved retaking the Damascus suburbs (Douma, Saqba,
Ghouta) and other areas relatively close to the capital that had either
passed out of regime control or threatened to do so. Assad employed as many
as 20,000 troops in this offensive, including from the "elite" 4th Division
and Republican Guard. In the current phase, the regime is working to
eliminate important and highly visible centers of resistance, especially in
Homs and Zabadani. The next phase will likely focus on reducing armed
resistance in Idlib and Deraa governorates, as the regime is able to
concentrate forces in those areas.
Regime forces are employing tactics that match the goals of the offensive,
including isolation, siege, bombardment, and assault. Isolation involves
surrounding a targeted area with combat forces and cutting off essential
services (water, food, power, and communications) and outside access. The
area is then bombarded with heavy weapons. The shelling is intended to
inflict casualties (military and civilian), reduce the opposition's will and
ability to resist, and set the stage for ground raids and, eventually,
direct assault by armor and infantry.
Raids are intended to kill or capture FSA personnel, arrest opposition
figures, detain protestors, and weaken opposition. They are frequently
executed in areas where the government does not have sufficient forces for a
concerted assault. Currently, this tactic is being heavily employed in
Idlib, Deraa, and Deir al-Zour governorates.
Assaults are large offensive operations (multi-brigade/divisional scale)
aimed at wresting control of an area from the FSA. The regime conducted this
kind of action in the Damascus area during the first phase of the offensive,
and the stage is set for similar efforts in Homs and Zabadani, where regime
forces have been bombarding and raiding.
The regime has yet to employ its full arsenal, however, eschewing certain
heavy artillery systems (rockets and missiles), combat aircraft (including
attack helicopters), and lethal chemical agents. (Recent reports of nerve
agent use in Homs are unconfirmed.) Most likely, Assad is concerned about
international reaction to the use of aircraft (bearing in mind what happened
in Libya) and lethal chemical weapons against unprotected civilians. The
regime has these weapons in abundance and could choose to employ them if it
becomes desperate enough. Indeed, if the current offensive fails to achieve
its objectives and resistance continues to grow, the regime will likely
commit heavy artillery and combat aviation to the struggle. And the use of
lethal chemical weapons cannot be ruled out.
In terms of meeting its goals, the regime has had limited success during the
current offensive. FSA combat formations have taken some losses among both
leaders and personnel. Meanwhile, regime forces have at least temporarily
suppressed armed opposition in some areas and reasserted control in others
(e.g., parts of Homs and the close-in Damascus suburbs).
Yet these gains have been made at significant cost in terms of casualties
and damage, and without demonstrating that the regime can clear and hold
areas for longer than the time troops are sitting on top of them. Moreover,
the army is showing signs of strain. The increased use of field artillery
suggests that it is concerned about fighting the FSA up close in difficult
urban environments. It also seems worried about the FSA's antitank
capabilities. In addition, ground forces have shown evidence of declining
combat spirit, with reports of infantry units unwilling to advance or
retreating from contact unless accompanied by armor.
As mentioned above, the war has become a matter of survival for the Assad
regime. It is approaching the upper limit of violence it can employ, and if
it is not yet "all in," it may soon be so, with potentially devastating
effects on the population.
The keys to continued regime military operations are clear: the ability to
mount coordinated operations on a large scale, the ability to move forces at
will, and the ability to employ heavy firepower. At the same time, regime
forces have real weaknesses in close urban combat, in their inability to
destroy FSA elements, and in their need to fight in many locations
These factors suggest several ways of providing military assistance to the
FSA if direct military intervention is not an option. For example, the
United States and other international actors could give the FSA the means to
disrupt the regime's military communications system, such as targeting
information or the physical means of cutting communication lines. They could
also provide techniques and weapons (e.g., mines and other explosive
devices) for disrupting road movement. To deal with regime armor and
artillery, they could provide antitank weapons and mortars. And additional
small arms and ammunition would help offset the regime's advantage in
numbers. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these kinds of actions
would help level the battlefield, alter the psychological environment, and
increase pressure on Assad and his forces. Ultimately, they could also save
lives by inhibiting regime operations and, perhaps, shortening the conflict.
Jeffrey White is a defense fellow at The Washington Institute, specializing
in the military and security affairs of the Levant and Iran.
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Received on Fri Feb 17 2012 - 17:57:02 EST