Defense Update: An Expert Assesses the Syrian ‘Maturing Insurgency’ (UPDATED)
The latest, high-level Syrian defector, Nawaf Fares, Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, has urged “all honest members” of Assad’s Syrian Baath Party to follow his path “because the regime has turned it to an instrument to kill people and their aspiration to freedom,” according to the New York Times.
Burhan Ghalioun, a member of executive bureau and former leader of the Syrian National Council, the main anti-Assad opposition group, said, “We welcome the defection of the Syrian ambassador to Iraq. We have called upon high-ranking officials whether in the military or in the diplomatic service to defect from this regime and join the revolution of dignity,” according to the Times.
In a post about Syrian defections to other countries, I also mentioned internal defections: Syrian military officers and troops defecting to the opposition forces, many taking their weapons with them.
A reader asked about the strength and effectiveness of the rebel forces.
I mentioned that there are reports that rebels are beginning to control more and more of the countryside and small towns — even traveling openly on some highways — and I promised to look into it.
A few days ago, USA Today reported that Syrian rebels are growing more effective as they have increasingly turned to roadside bombs and other guerrilla tactics to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad; that while the rebels have been pushed from major cities they “operate with near impunity in parts of the countryside, outside the reach of Syria’s overstretched military.”
USA Today quotes Joseph Holliday, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who recently completed a report on the conflict.
What better place to get the facts than from the source?
Here are some comments from the Executive Summary to Holliday’s excellent report, “Syria’s Maturing Insurgency.”
But first Mr. Holliday’s impressive qualifications.
Joseph Holliday is a Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) focusing on the ongoing crisis in Syria. He wrote the ISW reports “Syria’s Armed Opposition” in March 2012 and “The Struggle for Syria in 2011” in December 2011. Holliday has briefed Members of Congress and Congressional staff, military and intelligence personnel, and State Department officials. He has also provided analysis for news outlets including the New York Times, the Associated Press, Reuters, USA Today, CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera.
Prior to joining ISW, Holliday served as an infantry and intelligence officer in the U.S. Army from June 2006 to September 2011, and continues to serve in the Army reserves. During his time on active duty, Holliday deployed to East Baghdad, Iraq from November 2007 to January 2009 with the 10th Mountain Division, 2-30 Infantry Battalion. From May 2010 to May 2011 he deployed to Afghanistan’s Kunar Province as the Intelligence Officer for 2-327 Infantry Battalion, 101st Airborne Division. Holliday has a Bachelor’s degree in History from Princeton University.
Now to the summary.
Holliday writes that Syria’s maturing insurgency has begun to carve out its own de facto safe zones around Homs city, in northern Hama, and in the Idlib countryside after successfully withdrawing into the countryside, where as of June 2012, they control large swaths of Syria’s northern and central countryside.
He further claims that while the Assad regime is postured to hold Damascus and other large cities, it does not have the capacity to defeat the insurgency that prospers in the countryside.
According to Holliday:
The insurgency has approximately 40,000 men under arms as of late May 2012. New local rebel groups continue to form, which presents a challenge to command and control. However, responsible operational-level structures have emerged in the form of provincial military councils that derive legitimacy from the local rebel groups operating under their command. The provincial military councils operate under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but make their own operational decisions.
(While the number, 40,000, is impressive, they face approximately 200,000 loyal security forces and militias equipped with armor, artillery and helicopters.)
Holliday describes in detail — in the report — the organization, make-up, coordination, etc. of and between provincial military councils (majlis askeri), FSA battalions, provincial revolutionary councils, (majlis thawar), and other rebel organizations.
Holliday warns that the conflict in Syria is approaching a tipping point at which the insurgency will control more territory than the regime, but that “neither the perpetuation nor the removal of Assad will guarantee Syria’s future stability. In order to prevent Syrian state failure, the insurgency must mature into a professional armed force that can promote and protect a stable political opposition.”
Finally, that while external support has contributed to the success of the insurgency, “the resulting competition for resources has encouraged radicalization and infighting” and has undermined the professionalization of the opposition’s ranks. “Carefully managing this support could reinforce responsible organizations and bolster organic structures within the Syrian opposition,” says Holliday.
How about the U.S.?
The priority for U.S. policy on Syria should be to encourage the development of opposition structures that could one day establish a monopoly on the use of force. External support must flow into Syria in a way that reinforces the growth of legitimate and stable structures within the Syrian opposition movement. This will mitigate the regional threats of Syrian state failure and prolonged civil war.
Please read the entire, superb report here