Syria: The Military Option
By: Nicolas Nassif
Published Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Regardless of whether Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected in the manner reported, or was sacked before he defected, the importance of the move lies in the symbolic blow it has dealt to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
While soldiers, officers, junior officials and diplomats have turned against, defected from, or abandoned the regime, the phenomenon hadn't previously reached such a senior level within the regime. This man was appointed by presidential decree to head the government and was entrusted, at least outwardly, with running and supervising it (although under the new Syrian constitution it is the president – who appoints and swears in the prime minister, deputy premiers, ministers and deputy ministers – that heads the council of ministers).
Sources close to the regime say Hijab was never a regime insider. Some say the reason Assad made him prime minister on June 23 was that he was viewed as being acceptable to the opposition.
But Hijab’s defection may also be less significant than the media clamor that was raised over it yesterday may suggest, in that it has no bearing on the balance of power, especially military power, on the ground.
That is the crucial consideration, especially since the failure of the UN observer mission in June and the resignation on Friday of UN/Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. The battle will be won by whomever takes ground and denies the other side control, forcing it to negotiate from a losing position. Indeed, the international deadlock over Syria amounts to an admission by the competing powers – no less than by the regime and its armed opponents – that until further notice, the only option on the table is military.
Hence the persistence of the US, European Union, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in striving to overthrow Assad and weaken his regime at any price, and the determination of Russia, China and Iran to support him and supply the regime with the means to survive and stand fast.
Until either Assad or his armed opponents achieve a major military victory that translates into immediate political gains, thus forcing the external players to negotiate, there will be no alternative to continued military operations and further fighting.
The armed opposition – with all its diverse factions comprising Syrian, Arab and foreign fighters and Salafi and other ideologies – has become better organized and equipped to wage a long war. It is receiving larger amounts and more sophisticated military equipment by the day. The regime, too, has adjusted for a protracted battle, in which no holds are barred, and in which it feels justified in unleashing all the firepower at its disposal.
Both sides are equally convinced that to achieve a big military triumph, such as controlling Aleppo, maximum force must be used, in order to push the crisis toward a resolution – though not necessarily to a political settlement anytime soon.
Military developments on the ground also seem to be a main preoccupation of the US administration, as the violence in Syria has escalated to new heights following the assassination of four senior military officers in July and the subsequent battles for Damascus and Aleppo. Washington is equally convinced that it is the outcome of the daily confrontations that will determine what happens on the political front.
This explains its lack of interest in diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis, including Annan’s mission before he stepped down, and its obsessive blaming of the Russian and Chinese veto at the UN Security Council for the failure to achieve progress.
According to Lebanese sources who recently met with senior US diplomats in Washington, the Americans are becoming more actively involved in efforts to force Assad out of office, as the Turks, Saudis and Qataris are insisting he must be.
The US administration, according to the sources, believes Assad has the military capacity to prevent his overthrow in the near future, and perhaps for a long time, and definitely to deny the opposition the kind of balance-tipping military victory it seeks.
However, Washington is also convinced that the Syrian regime – as established by Hafez al-Assad in 1971 and inherited by his son in 2000 – is finished. The debate within the administration between foreign policy, defense and intelligence specialists is about what regime can be expected to replace it, with or without Bashar al-Assad. They certainly would prefer it to be without him, and are more outwardly adamant than ever that there must be no place for him or his aides in any new dispensation.
But they also say they want a transition which, while excluding Assad, preserves Syria’s unity and gradually moves it towards democracy, and does not involve acts of revenge against people who had been forced to obey the regime.
Administration officials hold out little hope of a political transfer of power from Assad to any new regime or president chosen by the opposition or the people. They expect Assad’s ultimate exit to be painful for him, and possibly dramatic, so long as it is the armed conflict which determines the crisis. But with the opposition apparently incapable of forcing him out any time soon, the view in Washington is that the bloody conflict is likely to continue for a long time, perhaps longer than the Syrians themselves imagine.
According to the sources, the US still does not have enough accurate and detailed – or even confirmed – information about the internal workings of the opposition groups it supports, notably the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is riven with factional and ideological rivalries and power-struggles, and the Free Syria Amy (FSA) which operates separately.
US diplomats say the Syrian opposition is disorganized, leaderless and divided, unable to control its internal rivalries, and too beholden to sponsors such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Each of these countries has its client groups and figures in the opposition, further exacerbating divisions. Disputes and power-struggles between the Muslim Brotherhood and secular currents also plague the SNC.
Likewise on the ground, a growing role is being played by al-Qaeda and Salafi groups, who operate independently of the SNC and FSA and discredit the opposition and its aims. Indeed, the Americans believe that these groups – like the regime – are plunging the country further into sectarian and confessional war.
Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.