Syrian President Bashar Assad with his army generals 311 (R).
(photo credit: Reuters)
It has long been apparent that Syrian President Bashar Assad has no intention of
being driven from power by unarmed protests and demonstrations. The Syrian
uprising is now seven months old. The regime has slaughtered 2,700 of its own
The situation has reached a stalemate. Assad does not have
the power to simply drown the uprising in blood without potentially triggering
increased international attention and possibly intervention. The protesters,
meanwhile, have no way to translate their ongoing demonstrations, slogans and
protests into a tool for seizing power. Early efforts to tempt senior regime
figures away from Assad got nowhere. The regime remains apparently united around
its leader. The army, meanwhile, has not split.
There are some
indications that European Union- and United Statesimposed sanctions are
beginning to sting. But few believe that the regime is anywhere near an economic
crisis that could force political change. China, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and
Iran continue to conduct brisk trade with the Assad regime.
therefore not surprising that there are those in Syria for whom continued
unarmed protests are no longer enough.
The refusal of either regime or
protesters to buckle has placed Syria on the threshold of civil war for some
months. The Syrian government is a seasoned and brutal practitioner of violence
for political gain. In many ways, it has been conducting a one-way war against
its own people for the last half year. Elements on the other side are now
crossing the threshold to armed resistance. This is set to transform the
direction of events in Syria.
So who are the groups conducting or
proposing armed activity against the regime? The most significant organization
to have professed armed action is the Free Syria Army, led by former Syrian Air
Force Gen. Riad Asaad. Asaad defected from the air force in July, taking refuge
The first leader of this group, Col. Hussein Harmoush,
was delivered back to Syria in dubious circumstances. In inimitable Assad regime fashion, he then
appeared on Syrian state television professing his opposition to the uprising.
This episode did not, however, signal the end of the organization.
Free Syrian Army possesses the inevitable Facebook page. It is also prone to
making occasional wild and unsubstantiated assertions of achievement against
Assad's forces. Asaad told reporters this week that the Free Syrian Army now
numbers 10,000 members. This number is probably inflated. Still, clear evidence
is emerging of action and organization on the ground. Of smaller
dimension than the claims of the organization, but of substance
Desertions from the army are growing as demoralized Sunni
rank and file soldiers balk at engaging in further acts of bloodshed against
their fellow Syrian Sunnis. Some of the deserters are now finding their way to
organized rebel units.
A watershed moment in the emergence of armed
insurrection against the Assad regime came in the town of Rastan, 175 km. north
of Damascus, at the end of last month. Syrian government forces used armor and
helicopter gun ships against army deserters in the town of 40,000 people. They
were fighting against a Free Syria Army unit composed of army deserters calling
itself the Khaled Ibn Al- Walid battalion, led by one Capt. Abd-el Rahman
Sheikh. This force, according to eyewitness reports, possesses some tanks as
well as small arms.
Government forces regained control of the town after
exchanges of fire. The fighting ended with the withdrawal of the insurgents, but
not with their defeat. At least 130 people were killed.
The name of the
battalion in Rastan reflects the Sunni nature of the emerging military challenge
to the Alawi-dominated regime of Bashar Assad. Khaled Ibn al-Walid was the
Muslim Arab conqueror of Syria in the seventh century. The names of other army
units – such as the Omar Ibn-Al Khattab battalion in Deir al-Zour – also offer
evidence of this orientation.
Units associated with the Free Syrian Army
are active mainly in the area of Homs. This Sunni city is reported to be partly
under the control of insurgents and serves as the base area of the Khaled Ibn
al-Walid battalion. An additional area of activity is the Idleb province near
the Turkish border.
What are the implications of this emergent armed
challenge to Bashar Assad's rule?
First of all, as with the unarmed Syrian
opposition, it is impossible to gauge the true extent of unity and central
control prevailing among armed units operating against the Assad
regime. Riad Asaad and the Free Syrian Army possess a communications
mechanism and have an interest in claiming to control all armed action taking
place against the regime. There is a need for caution regarding these
Secondly, if the Libya model offers any lessons, a central one is
that without the involvement of NATO airpower and special forces assistance, the
rebels on the ground would have stood little chance for victory. The initial
goal of the Free Syrian Army is to carve out “liberated zones” from which they
can conduct their campaign. Without international assistance, it is
difficult to see how the integrity of such zones could be maintained against the
vastly more powerful forces available to the regime.
emergence of armed resistance is likely to be used by the Assad regime as an
easy foil for escalating its campaign of repression and killing.
the last six months indicate anything, it is that the tried methods of Ba’athist
repression are no longer able to deliver quick and magical solutions for the
Assad dictatorship. The Alawi regime remains determined to stay in power, by
force of arms. The mainly Sunni resistance to it now looks set to meet fire with