Syria: The Territorial War Comes First

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Syrian people stand in front of Turkish soldiers as they wait to cross the border after Syrian aircraft bombed the strategic border town of Ras al-Ain, on 12 November 2012. (Photo: AFP - Bulent Kilic)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Monday, November 12, 2012

While the Syrian opposition has been meeting in Doha, the escalation of armed actions in recent days – especially in and around Damascus – underlines once again that the main contest between Assad’s regime and its opponents is over military gains.

The Doha meetings sought to bolster the opposition’s political credibility by prompting it to build a new organizational framework for itself. But the crisis still appears to be driven primarily by events on the ground.

More than ever, clashes have been taking place near the capital. This resembles what happened in Aleppo, which began experiencing the impacts of the conflict in July, but has since become its epicenter – the place where the regime’s fate and the opposition’s future will be decided.

Nonetheless, the assessment of a prominent Lebanese figure who was recently briefed on the thinking of the Syrian leadership – and of Assad in particular – differs sharply with the prevalent view both in the Syrian opposition and among its Lebanese allies, who are equally eager to see the Assad regime’s demise. This well-informed figure was provided with a number of insights into the mindset and approach of the Syrian leadership.

First, the government in Damascus is convinced that improving its military position on the ground is essential in order to set the terms for an eventual political settlement. The government knows that no member of the international community has a readymade solution, and that UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s efforts have stalled. In the absence of a political settlement, military operations have become the sole means for either side to achieve tangible territorial gains.

Suicide bombings and attacks do not count for much in this, as they have little impact on government retreats or opposition advances. Iraq suffers many more such attacks than Syria on a regular basis without being decisively affected by them. The attacks in Syria are mostly claimed by a single extreme Salafi group, the al-Nusra Front. The West does not consider the attacks to be an integral part of the armed opposition’s campaign to topple the government, but views them as terrorist attacks bearing the hallmarks of al-Qaeda – the thing that worries it most about Syria.

Moreover, although it has been 19 months since the crisis began, no firm demarcation lines have been established between the army and the armed opposition. While the opposition holds many rural areas, it advances and retreats. It has not been able to completely consolidate its control over the areas it dominates or the supply lines between them. The areas have instead been turned into quasi-independent fiefdoms, not subject to a single military command or political authority. Some villages are held by hardline Salafis, others by the Muslim Brotherhood or army deserters, while the government and rebels vie for control of city neighborhoods. The failure to consolidate frontlines makes it easier for the army to access all parts of the country by land and air, even rebel-controlled areas.

The regime views its survival and continued control of the military – defying numerous forecasts of its imminent demise -- as something of a victory in its own right, albeit a partial one. Its enemies’ hopes that the army would disintegrate or stage a coup against Assad have been confounded. Desertions and defections have ceased to be an important factor affecting the domestic balance of power. Rather, the growing role of hardline Salafis and foreign fighters in the opposition has come to the fore, with fears growing in the West about these groups’ tightening grip on parts of the country, their arsenals, and their violent and brutal methods.

The Syrian leadership also sees the crisis, which began as a confrontation with its domestic opponents, as having fallen hostage to a global East-West struggle. It is no longer a local crisis for which local solutions can be sought, but one between rival world powers whose differences over how to approach the Syrian problem could not be resolved at the UN Security Council. Neither side is capable of carrying the international community with it.

The international split over Syria means the West cannot impose the downfall of the regime or force the president to step down, and the East (meaning the Russia-China axis) cannot write the opposition out of a solution. The regime sees the internationalization of the crisis as a success for Assad’s policy of relying on the time factor. As a result, all the players have been exposed and become known, and there are no more hidden cards.

Furthermore, the Syrian president believes that his departure from office would be far more costly for the country than his remaining in power. Despite the immense amount of destruction inflicted in recent months, he thinks things would get much worse if he were to step down. That is what he means when he keeps saying that the regime and the army are preventing the country from sliding into a proper civil war.

As the Syrian leadership sees it, it is facing an all-out assault in which every means available is being employed against it and no expense is being spared. It estimates that the total sum spent so far on the armed rebellion and the offshore opposition amounts to $8 billion, starting with bills for elegant neckties, plush cars, plane tickets, and hotel accommodation in Arab and Western capitals, as well as personal allowances; and not excluding the cost of funding fighters and providing them with automatic weapons, artillery, and – more recently – Stinger missiles.

Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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