Chairman Mao vs. President Assad: People’s War in Syria

The last few weeks of the war in Syria have seen a lot of back and forth action and big body counts, but between the lies and the omissions and the fog of war, it's hard to perceive a narrative. But look closely and apply a bit of military history, and it comes through clearly: the war is in what Mao called the second phase of people’s war. Mao’s ideas about “people’s struggle” are eminently relevant to 21st century warfare. The stages of Maoist people’s war are episodes in a story as old as asymmetric warfare and it is useful to understand them because asymmetric warfare of various types is the most common type of war today. The ongoing actions of the Free Syrian Army follow a pattern Mao recognized and described.

The aspiring revolutionaries, separatists and insurgents of the world have problem: at the start they have to rely on small numbers of generally unprofessional fighters and arsenals that often consist of little more than a few rusty AK-pattern rifles and homemade explosive devices. This certainly was the case for many of the local Free Syrian Army units that comprise the actual fighting strength of the rebellion in Syria. Our revolutionaries-to-be will have to face government forces that will have a fully equipped conventional military and professional security forces.  The dilemma for the rebels is to overcome this disparity. In “On Protracted War”, a treatise on the methods by which China could hope to defeat Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Mao offers a three stage plan.

The first step is to establish a countryside “zone of control” where the prospective guerrilla force can be relatively safe (in reality, only safe-ish) from the government and can build support among the local population. Establishing this countryside base is the first phase of Maoist people’s war and it is usually located in a remote, rugged area that is viewed as a low priority by government forces and where the locals take a dim view of the authorities. Mao had to try this a few times before he managed to find a place sufficiently beyond the reach of Chiang Kai-Shek’s military, in Shanxi province at the end of the Long March. The Free Syrian Army has formed countryside sanctuaries in the rural areas of Idlib and Aleppo Provinces, close to the Turkish border and throughout the central Sunni heartland of Syria. In these areas, the guerrilla forces can melt away in the face of government firepower, the most important tactic in a guerrilla’s arsenal. More importantly, the rebel forces can act like a mini-government of their own in the areas that they assert some level of control over: enforcing rough justice, feeding refugees, providing various state services and propagandizing the population in favor of the political cause of rebellion. Building networks of support and parallel state structures among the population in areas under a degree of guerrilla control are the most important things that a rebel group can do in the first phase of Maoist people’s war, and this is clearly what the Free Syrian Army and the rebel “Local Coordination Committees” have been doing throughout large areas of Syria.

Of course, carving out a “liberated zone” requires a military confrontation with the forces of the government.  To build combat power and gain popular support, government forces will have to be engaged and defeated. Rebel forces have to capture weapons and equipment, and they have to build a reputation as winners worth backing at risk to one’s life. Mao describes these sorts of operations as “tactical offensives within the strategic defensive...battles of quick decision within the strategically protracted war”.  In practice, this means quick attacks against isolated government checkpoints, outposts, convoys and the like. The idea is to hit, inflict casualties, capture some weapons, shoot some footage of burning enemy vehicles and bodies to put on Youtube (because in irregular conflict, propaganda war = real war) and disappear into the countryside. Mao eloquently simplified the process by saying that rebel forces “must accumulate the results of these partial destructions of the enemy into major strategic victories”.

To increase popular antipathy towards the security forces, rebel forces often play a cynical game; launching attacks that are sure to enrage security forces but not substantively harm them, and then withdrawing,  prompting bloody retaliation against the civilian population that the guerrillas claim to defend. This will reliably polarize and radicalize the civilian population, to the advantage of the guerrillas. This is exactly what has been taking place across rural Syria for the last 8 months: small pinprick attacks by the FSA against government targets and riotous protests followed by government sniping and shelling, which stirs up the local population even more and creates more willing recruits for the FSA (not all need be fighting-age males; child lookouts and old woman cooks and safe-house owners are just as vital to the success of an insurgency as riflemen).

Over time, this dynamic creates a “liberated zone”, as the guerrilla forces grow stronger and the cost of entering guerrilla territory increases to the point that the government can no longer do it essentially at will. When Mao wrote “On Protracted War” he predicted that the Sino-Japanese conflict would soon reach this state, and he was proven correct. This is what we currently find across much of Syria: the army cannot enter parts of the country, in many others it would require a full armored column, and all that they would find are ambushes, IEDs and locals claiming that they are ignorant of any guerrilla activity.

The Free Syrian Army has completed this first phase of Maoist people’s war: there are already multiple rebel-held and rebel-friendly countryside zones in many areas around Syria. The conflict is now deeply into Mao’s second stage, what Mao called “strategic stalemate”. In this stage, the government forces have “stop(ped) their strategic offensive” and are “safeguarding occupied areas”. Therefore, rebels must expand their safe zones to isolate, encircle and infiltrate these areas. The FSA has done this masterfully in recent months. It began in July with the FSA’s offensive against Damascus. Although the Syrian Army was able to kill hundreds of FSA fighters and reclaim the city, attacks on security forces are still common there. Then, beginning on 19 July, FSA fighters from the countryside suddenly occupied about half of Syria’s second city, Aleppo. Right now, the Syrian Army is engaged in slogging street-by-street fight, trying to push them back and the outcome is far from clear. This may sound premature, but we can make a sweeping generalization: no matter the outcome, these battles were strategic wins for the rebels.             

Why? The battles of Damascus and Aleppo are strategic victories for the Free Syrian Army because they are completing the second stage of Maoist people’s war. From the start, Mao  would have recognized the FSA’s methods. In “Protracted War” Mao strongly advocates taking advantage of the mobility and light footprint of guerrilla forces by distributing irregular forces across a wide area to conduct guerrilla warfare, and then concentrating them to fight in a more sustained, conventional fashion against an enemy weak point, by moving them across territory the stronger enemy could not effectively monitor and control. This concept is directly reflected by the composition of the FSA forces in Aleppo and Damascus. Local FSA sub-units coordinated and moved across countryside back-roads and trails, around government strongpoints, to flood into the cities with a force that could dislodge conventional units.

By bringing the war into Damascus and Aleppo the FSA has forced the government to concentrate its forces in what were previously safe areas, just to get them back under control. Meanwhile, in a story that the media has been missing, the FSA has been following the Maoist rubric and cutting the logistical routes between the government-controlled cities. Syrian Army outposts throughout the Sunni countryside in Idlib and Aleppo provinces are being surrounded and captured, in places like Marat al-Numaan, Atareb, Hamadan and Al Bab. These isolated government bases, outposts and checkpoints have been Assad’s main tools for keeping the pressure on the FSA in areas where it is popular.  Their loss is a direct result of the fact that Assad has been forced to concentrate his forces and his logistical capacity to support his concentrations in Aleppo and Damascus. This means that the FSA is forming a tighter and tighter noose around Aleppo, and making it harder for the regime’s power centers to support and supply each other. Assad’s deteriorating logistical and transport situation will erode his firepower advantage.  Let’s review a map of the state of the war:

MAP CREDIT: Political Geography Now blog (www.polgeonow.com)

Now compare this with a map showing Syria’s road system

MAP CREDIT: Ezilon Maps.com (http://www.ezilon.com/maps/asia/syria-maps.html)

The Assad government is based in Damascus. Latakia and Tartus Governates in the Northeast, along the coast, are the power-base of the Assad family and the Alawites. The port of Latakia is also a supply line for the regime to the outside world. To fight, Assad needs to be able to connect his forces to their bases in either Damascus or Latakia and Tartus Governates along the coast. To reach Aleppo from these places, regime forces must use the M4 motorway (from Latakia) or the M5 motorway (from Damascus). Now check the red zone on the first map and remember: isolated Assad outposts have been or are being destroyed across Western Syria, and there are plenty of rebel held or rebel-friendly villages, towns and hilly rural areas that those highways pass through which are ideal for the sorts of ambush and bomb attacks that are the FSA’s trademark. Some of the most well-equipped and organized Syrian rebel units operate in this area, like the Islamist “Ahrar al-Sham” brigade.

The FSA has seen the opportunity and has fought to capture Maraat al-Numaan in southeast Idlib, cutting the M5 route and besieging Wadi al-Dayf airbase. To the east of Aleppo, the highway to Raqqa and Deir-az-Zoir province is being heavily pressured by the rebels in several places. Syrian Army convoys traveling the remaining route, the M4 from Latakia to Aleppo, have faced major engagements at Ar-Riha, Saraquib and other places along the route. If the Syrian Army cannot reclaim Maraat al-Numaan, the M4 route will probably be cut by the FSA as well.

The question is: what casualty rate will Assad pay to resupply his forces in the Aleppo battle when he’s operating over very exposed supply lines? This is what Assad’s forces will have to deal with.

In this video, we see a convoy of Syrian Army trucks that have been ambushed and captured by the Free Syrian Army in the course of a battle in the town of Sarmada. The attrition of Assad’s logistics has the potential to make his concentration of forces around Aleppo unsustainable.

There is another strategic reason that taking the fight to Damascus and Aleppo is a big win for the Free Syrian Army. Both cities were relative bastions of support for Assad’s regime. Conventional wisdom states that to be successful, guerrillas need the support of the local population, and this is true. Nevertheless it’s also true that irregular conflicts depend on capturing loyalties and perceptions as much as on capturing territory. The offensive against the cities is a blitzkrieg attack on the minds and the emotions of the regime’s supporters. It shatters the illusion that the war is a mere “security disturbance” in the countryside that Assad’s regime can go on forever. Loyalists have to reckon with the fact that they are not safe. An example of this sort of calculation is the execution of the leaders of the Berri clan, some of Aleppo’s most powerful and faithful Assad enforcers, at the hands of a rebel firing squad CAUTION GRAPHIC 

Rebel supporters see these sorts of events and think “I’m backing the right horse, this is not the time to change sides”. The same graphic illustrations of Assad’s weakness will prompt the sort of self-preservation behavior that truly dooms dictatorships facing defeat in their last days. Individual soldiers and bureaucrats stop “playing for the team” and start playing for individual survival because they feel they must, even if it means leaving their posts or cooperating with the enemy. The battles in Aleppo and Damascus have also forced the Syrian government to turn their heavy artillery, air power and death squads on areas that formerly supported Assad and which are vital to the continued functioning of the Syrian state.

Maoist people’s war is a process of coiling like a snake around conventional forces that can beat you in a stand-up fight after forcing them to spread thin. The Maoist combination of positional and guerrilla warfare maximizes the attrition price that conventional forces pay to supply and move, and chips away at the territory they hold. By taking towns and government positions along the motorways, the FSA is tightening the snake’s coils of Maoist second-state encirclement. Imagine an anaconda taking down large prey: with the prey in its coils, the snake just sits there and lets it struggle to break free. The prey’s own struggles tire it out and it weakens slowly, until finally it can’t resist when the anaconda snaps its neck, with not much more effort than it took to hold the prey in place. When the government forces struggle to break free of the second-stage people’s war encirclement, as the Syrian Army is doing right now in Aleppo, his struggles are like those of the snake’s prey. To break free he has to wreck his own strategic position by abandoning the countryside and shelling his own supporters. The third stage will come when the FSA engages in open positional warfare to seize and hold territory in conventional fights against concentrations of heavy Syrian Army forces, after Assad’s forces have been further degraded and the FSA has gained in strength. By then it will be too late for Assad.

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@RaceBannon18Z: May I also suggest James DeFronzo's: "Revolutions & Revolutionary Movements" Westview Press, 1991. As always, good reporting @smallwars

@smallwars As as an companion to your fine Syria piece for your readers: Mao Tse tung's "On Guerrilla Warfare" edited by Samuel B. Griffith.

The problem I see in applying Mao's treatise to the Syrian conflict is that the political opposition and rebel fighters are diverse and lack unity. These factors have contributed significantly to the stalemate that now exists.

I wholeheartedly agree that if Mao was placed in charge of the Free Syrian Army he would probably immediately publish an angry pamphlet or two denouncing the lack of unity. The ability to organize China's dissatisfaction with the Nationalists and Japanese into a tightly centralized force was probably his biggest genius. The Free Syrian Army totally lacks that 20th-century communist obsession with political unity. But I think in terms of the military situation the comparison is totally valid. The local guerrilla detachments that made up the majority of Communist Chinese strength during the Sino-Japanese War fought with less centralized direction most of the time (if I'm not mistaken), and coordinated more during bigger operations like the Hundred Regiments Offensive
-J. Mulcaire