In the last three weeks, the military dynamics in Syria have shifted so dramatically that, although it’s too soon to predict an endgame, it is clear that the Assad regime is now losing the war. This has had a galvanizing effect on Western powers, now panicking about their lack of influence with the armed opposition.
The most significant development is the opposition’s use of surface-to-air missiles, which destroyed two Syrian aircraft within the space of 24 hours this week. On Tuesday, a Russian-made Mi-8 transport helicopter was struck in the skies near Aleppo by a heat-seeking missile, possibly a Russian-made Strela-2 (or an SA-7 in NATO parlance). On Wednesday, a Syrian warplane was downed by a missile near Darat Azzah, and its pilot was captured and given medical treatment by the people who downed it.
According to the Washington Post, Western and Mideast intelligence sources suggest that rebels might now collectively possess as many as 40 MANPADs, devices that sound like necessary indignities for the incontinent, but will take a more embarrassing toll on decrepit Baathists. Some of these missiles were reportedly supplied by Qatar, but the bulk was clearly confiscated from sacked regime airbases. The largest haul of materiel came from the 46th Regiment base near Aleppo, which was raided a fortnight ago after a two-month-long siege.
The UK-based blogger Eliot Higgins (aka “Brown Moses”) has done yeoman’s work in cataloguing the booty from this successful operation. So far, it includes tanks, armored personnel carriers, “Dushkas” (the heavy machine guns rebels previously used to down aircraft), field artillery guns, howitzers, multiple rocket launchers and “up to 18 complete SA-7 MANPADS.” Tellingly, all the successful hits on regime aircraft in the last few days have been made with domestically obtained munitions, according to Human Rights Watch’s Emergencies Director Peter Bouackaert.
This means that Washington’s hiccups about providing the rebels with anti-aircraft weaponry are obsolete. Syria has become a do-it-yourself revolution, a fact that won’t be forgotten by the revolutionaries if the regime is ultimately defeated by its own hardware. The New York Times ran a story on Thursday suggesting that the Obama administration is having yet another serious rethink about its frozen-in-amber policy toward the conflict, and is reconsidering the wisdom of continuing to abjure its own gun-running program.
The White House worries that it will soon find itself without friends or influence in a post-Assad state; I worry that American flags will start going up in flames before Ali Mamluk and Assad are sirloin. (Here’s a rebel toting a shoulder-mounted missile launcher explaining how it was used to down the MiG and the helicopter. Notice how he doesn’t thank the CIA for those helpful training seminars.)
Moreover, there is now nothing to stop groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaeda faction, from procuring their own MANPADs, which they may have already done by singlehandedly taking the Mayedin base in Deir Ezzor this past weekend. This YouTube video shows the jihadists, identifiable by their black shahada flags, driving down one of the eastern province’s highways in pickup trucks, motorcycles, even a tank. What happens if they capture flyable aircraft next?
British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to grasp this dilemma better than his Western counterparts, which is why he has prevailed upon the European Union to extend its arms embargo on Syria by only three months, instead of the anticipated year. In 90 days, in other words, Britain and France could start arming the rebels. I’ve been told by a credible source that the EU is pushing for former Syrian Prime Minister Riad al-Hijab to head an interim government under the umbrella of the new Syrian National Coalition, which London and Paris have both recognized as the sovereign government-in-exile. This seems a reasonable proposition. Not only does Hijab have more insider knowledge of how the regime operates (even if his short-lived premiership was powerless), he stands apart from others in the political opposition by having had direct involvement with rebels: They smuggled him and his family out of Syria and into Jordan last August. If Cameron and Monsieur Hollande are interested in sending candy-grams to key FSA commanders, the first ones ought to go to Abdel Jabbar Al-Oqaidi, Muhammad Hussein al-Haj, Mithqal al-Bateesh, Qasseem Saadeddine, Abdulrazzaq Tlass (though probably best to wash after shaking his hand), and Abdulqader Saleh.
Finally, growing rebel capability might actually benefit the Kremlin. Russian-made weapons are now shooting down Russian-made aircraft, all at Syria’s expense, and to the great remuneration of Moscow’s state arms dealer Rosoboronexport.
This is why Putin continues to refurbish old helicopters and military spare parts and ship them back to Damascus, now via an air route through Azerbaijan, Iran and Iraq that’s got to be more expensive (to Assad) than transporting such equipment by sea. If the copters get blown out of the sky, the regime will need more.
Thanks to this blockbuster scoop by ProPublica, we also know that Russia minted and transported 240 tons of Syrian bank notes to the regime in a 10-week period from July to September, despite American and European sanctions having depreciated the Syrian pound by 44 percent since the start of the uprising in March 2011. Putin, who came to power in 2000 vowing to correct the hyperinflation of the Yeltsin bust period, knows the money he’s moving is fast becoming worth less than the paper it’s printed on. But who cares when it’s another country’s economy on the brink of collapse?
Putin knows he can’t play this game forever. Assad’s cash reserves are now estimated to be between $6 and $8 billion, but he’s losing $500 million a month to pay regime salaries and ensure that the lights stay on in the Presidential Palace. This doesn’t seem like terribly winning mathematics to me. And if this communiqué showing that the Syrian Central Bank has upped its deposits to 2 billion euros in Russia’s VTB Bank, the opposition actually has cause to rejoice: VTB will likely spend the money defending one of its numerous civil lawsuits with defaulting loan recipients.
The stupidest thing I’ve heard all week is that Vladimir Vladimirovich would quit Bashar if only NATO gave up on a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. (By backing him so intransigently, the KGB thug now gets to see Patriot missiles stationed in southern Turkey.) Now there are some within the Beltway’s hard-knock school of soft power politics who believe that Putin really thinks this way. But it doesn’t matter. The chief benefit of Syria’s DIY revolution is that those who for so long thought they knew the way the world works have been rendered irrelevant in determining the way it actually does.