A longstanding objective of the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria, and perhaps the primary reason for that policy’s contradictory and self-defeating outcome, has been to ensure the continuity of the Assad regime. That is to say, while the dictator himself might have to “step down,” the military, police, and security services which have carried out his campaigns of mass murder, torture, detention, and dispossession – one might call these ‘state institutions’ but for the fact that there never really was a functioning Syrian state to begin with – would have to be maintained. The ancillary objectives of this policy were to secure Syria’s stockpile of chemical and biological weapons and to prohibit the rise of extremist or jihadist elements in any post-Assad environment. Regime continuity was said to be imperative because of the hard American lesson learned from de-Baathification and the disbanding of the Saddamist army in Iraq, a calamity which persuaded the United States to sleepwalk its way into exactly the kind of result it wished to avoid in Syria. The state institutions, such as they were, have all but collapsed. Jihadists now stand an excellent chance of disrupting any plans for a political transition that will inevitably occur through the application of brute force. Only the apocalyptic prospect of the use of weapons of mass destruction has yet to be realized.
The most useful guide to Syria’s deterioration in the last two years is Joseph Holliday’s painstakingly researched examination of the regime’s military strategy, which might be thought of as the Petraeus Doctrine as understood by the Khmer Rouge. Holliday, a former US army intelligence analyst now with the Institute for the Study of War, highlights three of the regime’s “operational and dispositional” transformations that have brought us to where we are now. The first was its attempt to cleave the civilian population from the anti-Assad insurgency, which, as this involved heavy indiscriminate shelling of whole neighborhoods, had the effect of increasing population displacement and inflaming sectarian tensions. The second was the metamorphosis from an army-led campaign of repression to a sectarian militia-led one of atrocity (here it may be worth reading Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun’s fatwah for a pro-Assad holy war as an attempt to revivify the Sunni-Shiite “axis of resistance” as a peculiarly nationalist cause). The third was the uneven distribution of regime forces in the north and south of Syria, which has led to pockets of tenuously liberated territories in Aleppo, Idlib, and Raqqa, giving the regime limited spheres of total control. These are mainly in the southern province of Daraa – at least until the recent influx of Croatian weapons fueled bold rebel advances there – and the western coastal corridor that leads from Damascus to Homs to Latakia. It is in this fraught corridor that many of the worst atrocities have occurred. Holliday’s analysis corroborates in evocative detail Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s recent assessment that “the erosion of the Syrian regime’s capabilities is accelerating.”
Because Assad’s fear of mass Sunni defections impelled him to selectively deploy only the most politically loyal troop contingents, he has had to rely on a third of the Syrian Army’s doctrinal order of battle, or 65,000-75,000 troops out of 220,000. Ad hoc or hodgepodge formations have thus emerged, often woven into the hardcore praetorian divisions. Holliday reckons that the 4th Armored Division and Republican Guard consist of around 26,000 soldiers collectively. The Syrian Special Forces are said to be operating at two-thirds capacity, making them around 12,000-strong. Deployable soldiers from the army’s other conventional divisions constitute about one brigade’s worth per division, or 27,000 troops. Roughly 9,300 soldiers have been killed or wounded by the opposition by June 2012, before the regime stopped reporting its own casualties. Opposition sources estimate that 7,000 more have been killed, and 30,000 more wounded, by end of November 2012. These figures, which don’t take into account impressive rebel victories since late last year, should therefore be subtracted from the estimate of deployable troops (65,000-75,000). The impact on the Syrian military is made more severe by the fact that most of these casualties surely came from the regime’s most relied-upon formations. At the far end of Holliday’s math, this leaves Assad with around 18,700-28,700 conventional troops with which to combat an insurgency that now exceeds 100,000.
Moreover, Assad is running out of aircraft and ballistic missiles. Holliday notes that the Syrian Air Force only ever had an inventory of 150 helicopters – before rebels started blowing many out of the sky or destroying them on the tarmacs of airbases they overran. Jet strafing runs, too, have decreased since the height of the regime’s air war last August, likely owing to the rebels’ possession of surface-to-air missiles, the cost of fuel and machine wear-and-tear (Syria’s planes had been purposed for forestalling an Israeli invasion, not for conducting a six month-long bombardment campaign). “Unless Assad receives a significant infusion of spare parts or additional aircraft,” Holliday writes, “the Syrian Air Force is likely to become combat ineffective in 2013.” As for missiles, the regime had about 400 of these in 2011. From December 2012 to February 2013, it has been firing them at a rate of 20 per month, and that rate is only increasing. More than half of the regime’s ballistic inventory will be expended in 2013 unless Iran can manage to smuggle more than just parts for pre-existing inventory in its commercial airliners.
In this context, it’s easy to see why Assad is desperate to formalize an army of his own guerrillas and militiamen. At the start of the regime’s repression, he relied heavily on the shabiha (drug and arms traffickers turned loyalist thugs whose behavior is not fully controlled by the regime) and Popular Committees, which are best thought of as regime-armed neighborhood watch groups consisting of Alawites, Christians, and Druze. Both have worked hand-in-glove with the Syrian military and security services, often riding into opposition or neutral areas on the backs of army tanks or trucks, and dressed in civilian clothes alongside fatigue-clad soldiers. More recently, Iranian and Hezbollah-financed militias, namely Jaysh al-Sha’bi (the People’s Army), which actually pre-dates the conflict though has since been augmented by Iran and Hezbollah, and a more ‘professionalized’ corps of the Popular Committees known as Quwat ad-Difa’a al-Watani (the National Defense Forces). According to IRGC Commander Mohammed Ali Jafari, Jaysh al-Shabi has 50,000 recruits, an estimate backed by US and Israeli intelligence officials. To date, only that militia and the shabiha have been blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department.
The most gruesome acts of summary executions and ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in 2012 have been carried out by an inscrutable mixture of all of the above – the confusion owes to the opposition’s tendency to refer to the blanket term shabiha to account for all regime militias. Massacres that have become bywords of Assad’s war crimes have occurred in Houla, Qubeir, Deraya, and Thiabieh, the Damascus suburb where, as Holliday notes, 100 people were being shot at close range or stabbed to death last September just as Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite fighters were establishing a cordon around the neighboring district of Sayeda Zeinab, home to the Shiite shrine of the daughter of Imam Ali.
Absent a dramatic about-face in the Western approach to Syria, it is safe to assume that 2013 will be the year in which the civil war gives way to an overtly sectarian power struggle between Iran, Hezbollah, the Mahdi Army, and Assadist militias on one side, and Jabhat al-Nusra, Salafi-jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist or secular brigades beholden to Salim Idris’s Supreme Military Council on the other. (The Kurdish PKK militias in Syria will be caught in the middle or possibly drawn into a secondary conflict with Turkey, now desperately trying to negotiate peace with the PKK to escape that contingency.) The United States, France, and Great Britain are suddenly alive to the possibility of directly arming the Council in order improve Idris’s chances of winning this dire contest, and so Russia and Iran have reacted to such possibility as might be expected. Arming alone, however, is unlikely to permanently alter the balance of power so long as liberated territory in the north can still be shelled or rocketed from Damascus or from a dwindling number of Syrian aircraft.
Syria’s civilians will bear the bulk of the coming burden because they will be necessarily turned into combatants or refugees. At least 70,000 are dead. The United Nations has found that, just a week after the number of ‘registered’ Syrian refugees – and many are unregistered – had reached the one million mark, that figure had suddenly increased by ten percent. Combine that statistic with the estimated number of internally displaced Syrians (here reminding yourself that those who fled to different parts of the same city are not counted as internally displaced), and you discover that roughly 15 percent of the Syrian population has been made homeless. And the homes they vacated will likely have been destroyed or occupied by others, making a future reconciliation even more difficult.
Another way of stating the obvious would be to say that Syria is indeed on a path of becoming a second Iraq, if not a second Afghanistan, only without the benefit of an intercessory military force to try and reduce the carnage and hold the fragile society together. Violence, which has already hemorrhaged into nearly every neighboring country in the form of artillery or mortar rounds, cross-border raids, and even suicide bombings, exacerbating geopolitical tensions, may well raise the curtain on a region-wide conflagration.
This is why even staunch foreign policy realists previously opposed to any US intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds are now calling for just such a policy as a matter of urgent international priority. A recent report by Michele Dunn and Barry Pavel of the Atlantic Council – of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, no less – has urged Obama to arm vetted and responsible members of the anti-Assad opposition and, if necessary, circumvent the United Nations Security Council in order to lead a “coalition that uses limited airpower in combination with local and regional military forces to help turn the tide in favor of the rebels.” Fred Hof, another Atlantic Council member and formerly the State Department’s chief policy-planner on Syria, had intimated that establishing a partial no-fly zone over the country would not, in fact, entail an extensive bombing campaign to neutralize the regime’s air defense systems – long a bugbear of the White House Hof served.
Two years to the day that people took to protest the arrest of a handful of children who dared to graffiti anti-regime slogans on a wall in Daraa, Syria has become nearly what Bashar al-Assad warned it would become if the West took direct action against him. By heeding his threat, we have rendered unintended assistance to a mass murdering psychopath and made his prophecy the self-fulfilling kind.