Arab World: Fighting fire with fire

As armed resistance emerges in Syria, Sunni nature of the military challenge to Alawi-dominated regime of Bashar Assad is becoming clear.

Syrian President Bashar Assad with his army generals 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
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 people.
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.
It is 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 in Turkey.
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.
The 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 nonetheless.
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 claims.
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.
Thirdly, the 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.
But if 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 fire.