As carnage in Syria mounts and allies on all sides tweak their strategies, no yet-discovered path leads to peace.
“How can you cry, when you have run out of tears?” Those words, attributed to a US Army nurse serving wounded in France in World War II, capture the depth of suffering that is taking place in Syria today.
The figures for the refugees of the Syrian civil war simply stagger the mind.
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More than 9 million Syrians have fled the country, having been forced from their homes, creating the world’s largest displaced population, according to the UN’s refugee agency.
More than 2.5 million Syrians have been registered or are waiting to register in neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Turkey. More than 6.5 million people remain displaced inside the country. All are distressed, desperate, helpless and totally miserable.
The sieges of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s army have assured suffering beyond description. Syrian citizens already were suffering from insufficient water, food, medical supplies, doctors and electricity – and when the humanitarian situation grew really desperate in the suburbs of Damascus early this year – the elderly and children began to die of starvation. The distress is so extreme that residents have put pressure on local councils and armed opposition groups to accept a ceasefire that the regime was offering in 2013, according to news reports.
Neither the government nor many of the rebels have welcomed humanitarian aid. On October 25, 2013, Valerie Amos, UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, told the Security Council that the UN appealed to all warring parties to permit the free flow of such aid, but her office was mainly rebuffed. Little has changed since then. As part of its strategy, the Assad regime wants besieged rebel-held areas to be subject to unrelieved suffering to wear down their resistance, plus many rebel groups (mostly the extremists) mistrust humanitarian workers, specifically because they fear such personnel might collect intelligence on them and their locations.
The influx of refugees has put a heavy strain on neighboring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Lebanon is housing nearly 1 million Syrian refugees. Deaths from starvation, exposure, wounds and lack of medical attention are soaring there too.
In Egypt, Syrian refugees are not welcome and are being deported while Syrian women are being forced into prostitution. In Turkey and Jordan, the abuse of women is incessant, according to news accounts.
UN refugee chief Antonio Gutierrez last week urged all nations to open their doors to Syria’s refugees.
“To see Syrian children drowning in the Mediterranean today after fleeing the conflict … is something totally unacceptable,” he said. “Borders need to be open everywhere; visa policies need to be open everywhere.”
Refugee aid groups warned that a generation risks being “lost forever,” with millions of children deprived of health care, education and security.
Dynamics of the Syrian Civil War
The Syrian civil war began on March 15, 2011, after popular protests that spread nationwide because of youth unemployment, rural discontent and outrage over the brutalities of Assad’s government, including the torture of children. Many saw the protests as an echo of the Arab Spring protests that took place in North Africa and the Middle East and, at first, Syrian protesters thought that the Assad dictatorship would be overthrown as easily as those in Tunis and Egypt. As early as August 2011, President Obama was briefed by US intelligence officials on the situation, and he began to say publicly that Assad’s days were numbered, an expectation that soon was dialed back.
After Assad’s regime reportedly used chemical weapons on its people last August, Obama was prepared to launch 30 missiles at key Syrian sites. According to W. Andrew Terrill, a Mideast expert at the Strategic Studies Institute, while the attack was to have been “a token one, it appeared necessary at that time to ensure that Assad wouldn’t use any more chemical weapons on his people.” That need ended when Russia intervened with a program to divest Assad of chemical weapons.
Terrill also pointed out that Obama’s policy on the Middle East has shifted. On May 19, 2011, the president gave a foreign policy speech similar in approach to the thought of George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau or “even Henry Kissinger … where you carefully calibrate what your interests are and avoid defining your values.” Gary Sick, who teaches at Columbia University, where he heads a web site on Iran, said that in recent speech Obama has been concentrating chiefly on obtaining on a nuclear deal with Iran and an Arab-Israeli peace treaty. Syria was put on the back burner. Syria is no longer a core US interest.
Yet from the first, the increasing vicious struggle has vast foreign policy implications. The current civil war has resurrected a part of the ancient conflict between two branches of Islam, the Sunnis and the Alawites, the latter an offshoot of the Shia religion. Sunni states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey are going all out to get rid of Assad and inflict a defeat on Syria’s ally Iran, while spending billions on advice, training and weapons.
Unfortunately, the war has also attracted jihadis by the droves, violent terrorists from Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan whose ambition is to fight a Holy War, topple Assad and set up an extremist Islamic state – aims that make a peaceful diplomatic post-war settlement almost impossible. Even if Assad falls, they will continue fighting. And if he wins, they will continue fighting.
The Vanishing Stalemate
US intelligence officials, both serving and retired, told Truthout that Iran and Russia – and Hezbollah – are primarily responsible for the previous military deadlock on the ground in Syria, where Assad has a growing edge. “He does have the edge, but a lot of that edge is Iranian and Hezbollah and a lack of direction in Turkey, as well US failure to support major arms transfers to the rebels, and fighting among rebel groups along with the rise of extremists groups, which outside groups will not support,” said Tony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at CSIS in Washington. Russian arms shipments have provided Assad with a significant battlefield advantage, and that aid already has begun to increase this year. Last year, Russia began to send in new floods of aid, brought in by flights of Russian Autonov 124 aircraft. Russian arms included guided aircraft bombs, electronic warfare systems, surveillance radars and armored vehicles, according to studies by UnderstandingWar.org and confirmed to Truthout by US officials.
A new twist occurred at the end of last year, when the regime received new batches of UAVs that had been shipped by Russia through intermediaries such as the Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania. The UAVs have made a big difference because they are used by Assad’s forces to track opposition positions and deployment. Such valued intelligence helps Assad to carry out precision airstrikes and ground attacks against the rebels, using Syrian combat aircraft and helicopters, and it has enabled Assad’s forces to conduct multiple offensives and retain a deep-strike capability, US officials said.
The transition from popular uprising to civil war occurred in summer 2012. According to former US intelligence officials, from the beginning Assad deployed only trusted, politically reliable Alawite units to fight his war, but they were soon taking serious causalities. The support that came from the constant shipments of manpower and arms from Iran and the Hezbollah, combined with pro-Assad militias, have dramatically strengthened Assad’s combat capability. Hezbollah, which the United States has designated a “terrorist organization,” has made a huge difference by supporting Assad’s shrunken and depleted forces.
At first, Hezbollah was reluctant to enter the conflict but did so thanks to an understanding reached between the Iranian and the Hezbollah leadership. Hezbollah entered the conflict big time in March 2013. And by April, Hezbollah forces in large numbers were deep inside Syria, fighting with Assad’s reliable units. It proved a turning point in the war. Not only was Assad looking stronger, the rebels fighting him were looking weaker because of constant infighting. The Hezbollah forces are now fighting as light infantry who exhibit specialized skills and strategies, and their reinforcements have acted to shore up the casualties suffered by assisting forces in country and have proven very effective. Hezbollah forces also have helped improve Assad’s command and control in the war, and they have allowed him to stage simultaneous drives at multiple points against contested rebel areas.
Wayne White, former director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research said of this regime, “Its learning curve in this war has been replete with small unit actions and intense street fighting (not the training focus of a more conventional army regularly training for a major faceoff with Israel.)” He added that the competence of Hezbollah “has been rising steadily since two years ago.”
Assad’s Army is “evolving into a Hezbollah-like force,” according to Col. Pat Lang, former DIA head of Mideast operations. Hezbollah’s chief mission in the past was to prepare for fighting a war with Israel, its sworn enemy, but in Syria, Hezbollah was quick to adapt to the dynamics of the conflict, bolstering Assad’s forces so that they didn’t have to be everywhere at once. White said, “It has been my view that from the beginning of Hezbollah’s involvement – despite some inevitable problems when any two different forces first fight side by side – that Hezbollah forces have been subject to some manner of regime command and control all along. Otherwise, for example, since they’ve been in the thick of the heaviest fighting in close proximity to regime forces on numerous occasions, they would be a lot more exposed to friendly fire incidents – especially from regime artillery fire and airstrikes otherwise meant to support – not harm – them.”
A former US military official, who still consults for the Department of Defense and asked not to be named, pointed out that overreliance on Hezbollah has posed some strategic hazards since Syrian rebels have begun to target Hezbollah bases in Beirut’s suburbs, threatening to destabilize the region already in turmoil from so many clashing interests.
The Warring Opposition
Unfortunately, the Syrian rebels have no coherent strategy. The opposition is made of various groups, some of whom are moderates but the bulk of which are vicious and fanatical extremists. According to White, “The rebels are not only ‘disorganized’ (they’ve always been to some degree – with many scores of localized fighting groups sometimes with iffy coordination and even rivalries).” Nonetheless, they also have been engaged in “intense internecine fighting between secular/less extremist Islamic elements on one side and against the jihadists on the other,” he said.
Unfortunately, each of the rebel groups pursues a distinct strategy for the future of a new Syria that often contradicts that of other groups. Not only are the rebels under-armed, but they quarrel constantly. The chief aim of the rebels is to bring down Assad, a position that Obama has abandoned. Yet, because of the new US policy, which desires a peaceful transition from Assad to a new and more democratic government, a third of opposition members boycotted the Geneva II talks in February.
It is not hard to measure and rate these groups. For example, the Free Syrian Army is ineffective and has not maintained any distinct profile for some time. It is primarily nationalist, secular and moderate, and the United States supports it, but it never had any unity. The Syrian Military Council (SMC) presents a disciplined, coherent structure and was made up of national local factions. Yet when the rival Islamic Front was established Nov. 22, 2013, it suffered a huge setback.
The Islamic Front is probably the most formidable group in the opposition, according to Middle East experts interviewed by Truthout. It is the most powerful element of the opposition, with an estimated, 50,000 to 60,000 fighters that operate in 13 of the 14 Syrian provinces. Its charter calls for the imposition of a strict Islamic state under sharia law, and its growing numbers make it the one to watch. The Islamic Front has too much power to be opposed successfully by its opposition opponents.
Assad’s main regional opponents, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are also in disarray. In the beginning, all three wanted a quick ouster of Assad. Together with the United States, the Saudis are the powerful backer of the SMC, which is the least-militant of the Islamic groups. Qatar has been financing the strongest regional Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, along with Turkey. Egypt has since outlawed the Brotherhood. Turkey and Qatar also have retained ties with Iran, Assad’s key ally, who has sent special Quds Forces to fight in Syria as well as supplying fuel and arms to Hezbollah.
Officials from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France and the United States were among those who recently participated in a meeting in Washington to bolster the opposition working to undermine Assad, but one US official who knew the details of the meeting commented, “No one has anything like a unified agenda about what to do, but this is a start.”
The Saudis, who once heavily financed Islamic extremists, have reversed that policy and now favor more nationalist groups. All three states favor regionally minded Islamic proxies because there is little risk of blowback and because they are well-organized.
According to a recent story broken by The Wall Street Journal, Washington’s Arab allies are beginning to provide Chinese-made anti-aircraft missiles called Manpads, and Russian-made anti-tank missiles to the moderate and secular Free Syrian army, and the US has boosted financial support for the rebels, providing funds for modest salaries for rebel fighters. Most of the new arms will go to the so-called Southern Front of 10,000 FSA rebel fighters, which US sources say is becoming better organized. The new weapons will come from Saudi Arabia, which is supplying small arms, ammunition, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft weapons.
The new arms are arriving in significant numbers from the warehouses where they were stored in Jordan and Turkey, a Congressional source said. Another US military analyst pointed out that any shipments to rebels of anti-aircraft missiles would have to be delivered “in significant volume” to stop Assad’s air force. That won’t happen, he said.
CIA paramilitary officers, along with special operations trainers, have been recruiting anti-Assad fighters at refugee camps and towns along the Turkish and Jordanian borders. The CIA has trained select groups of rebels in Jordan in the use of encrypted communications equipment, and they have helped the rebels learn how to fire anti-aircraft weapons and small arms provided by Gulf states.
In September, the Saudis threatened to “go it alone” if Washington abandoned the rebel cause, and when the Geneva talks failed, Washington agreed to give limited assistance in arming the rebels, designed to keep an eye on Saudi efforts and retain some control over Saudi funding and assistance.
A US military official said that the Obama administration is establishing plans to more carefully vet new rebel fighting units because of fear that their new weapons will reach the hands of extremist jihadis within Syria.
In addition, there are still-developing plans to open more robust supply routes in the north, through Turkey, where so-called moderate opposition fighters are battling extremists as well as Assad’s forces.
According to news accounts, the Gulf States already have spent more than $1 billion buying weapons in Europe for the reconstituted brigades of the FSA. The Saudis have led this effort, the money moving through an account controlled by Saudi intelligence.
It remains unclear whether the Obama administration will move beyond its policy of aiding only the Free Syrian Army or back other factions. According to Pat Clawson, Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “It appears that Obama is operating under a very clear sense of the limits of what can be done.”
US officials confirmed that there are no plans to turn the CIA-operated training and arms assistance program over to the US military.
This is not a conflict where a decisive victory is possible, White said. US intelligence officials tell Truthout that this civil war could last for decades. It is clear that Damascus is the center of the regime’s efforts. The loss of the capital would mean serious damage to the regime’s chances of survival. And even if he wins, Assad will never again govern the whole state of Syria as he once did. He will conquer areas close to the coast, but the old state of Syrian is gone for good. In addition, they claim that if the regime lost, more horrible carnage would ripple through the region. One former US military source told Truthout that the jihadis “would kill every Alawite they could lay their hands on and threaten not only the United States, but its allies.” The biggest nightmare the United States would face would be a ramped-up, long-term threat to US security by extremist jidhadis, sources said.
In the past and now the present, Assad has labeled anyone who opposes him as “a terrorist.” But, in spite of such routine mechanical statements, the fact is that the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is growing throughout the region. Obama’s own policy has changed from calling for Assad’s ouster to calling for a political settlement involving a peaceful transition of power and retention of Syrian state institutions.
Unfortunately, the presence of extremists on both sides of the conflict will ensure the carnage will continue. Many members of the opposition simply want revenge against the regime’s atrocities – while ignoring their own. Even if a cease-fire were to take place, elements of the opposition won’t accept it until Assad is overthrown and their power is supreme. In 2013, a pro-regime militiaman explained why he wanted to kill Sunni women and children. “Sunni women are giving birth to babies who will fight us in the years to come, and we have a right to fight anyone who will hurt us in the future.” Their opponents share the same attitude.
A US intelligence source added that “the United States will have to find some way to cooperate with Assad and defeat the jihadi threat.” He added “the United States and even Israel, until recently, lived with him for years, as lethal and back-stabbing as he is. The biggest long-term threat to the United States is coming from the foreign fighters flooding the region from places like Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many are coming from Iraq too.”
Two authors at the Brookings Institution said, “In a stroke of remarkable irony, it is now distinctly possible that the United States would work with the Assad government on the problem of Syrian refugees and the large number of foreign fighters currently inside the country.”
Foreign policy analysts such as Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, are preaching exactly that. Gelb and others want Syrian moderates to form alliances with Assad. “What I am specially proposing specifically is that we try to get the ‘good’ rebels to come to a cooperative arrangement with Assad’s government to fight the jihadis. Now, you’re not going to get an ‘alliance’ sitting down together and working on a joint plan or anything, but you’ve got to get both sides focusing on fighting the jihadis – because they are the biggest threat to the Alawite family and the Sunni moderates.”
It should be remembered that countries like Israel supported Assad for decades, changing their policies only in 2013. Successive US administrations, not only shared intelligence extensively with Assad to trap Al-Qaeda operatives, but in 2003, there was a CIA-Syrian intelligence exploitation office based in Aleppo, plus Syria turned over to the agency all its intelligence networks in Germany as well as all of Syria’s cover companies there. As a result, the agency learned that Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker Mohammed Atta once worked in Germany for a Syrian cover company, these sources said.
The CIA was also grateful to Damascus for giving early warning of a planned al-Qaeda attack on US installations in Bahrain, using an explosives-laden glider, which would be invisible to radar, according to these sources.
“The Syrians have been an incredible help in sharing intelligence,” one serving US intelligence officer said. “Syria was not the only source, but they were very helpful in this matter,” a former senior CIA official said.
He added, “I think this is a case where we should just hold our noses,” he said.
In the meantime, Assad pulled out all of his propaganda machines in an attempt to win national elections scheduled to occur in June. It is highly unlikely that these will be either fair or free, a US official said.