Small Wars Journal

To Remove Assad the Opposition Must be Empowered

Mon, 07/23/2012 - 5:07am

It has taken over a year, but the international community is finally starting to accept that Bashar al-Assad cannot remain the ruler of Syria.  The international community’s hesitation allowed Assad to wage war against his own people, killing thousands and devastating Syria’s infrastructure.  Diplomatic overtures intent on ending the conflict between the two warring factions have failed and will continue to fail so long as Assad’s intransigence continues.  No international party is willing to directly intercede in the conflict, rightfully fearing the unforeseen consequences of military intervention.  If the international community intends on removing Assad, then only two options are currently available: assisting in the overthrow of Assad by members of his ruling coalition, or supporting a victory by the opposition against the regime. 

Neither of these options is optimal.  Yet, other options are neither realistic nor tolerable.  The conflict has passed any threshold in which a negotiated settlement would satisfy either party as they stand today.  Assad’s onslaught against his own people shows he is intent on remaining president at any cost.  The opposition, once composed of moderate activists calling for political reform, has evolved into an armed insurgency intent on making the regime pay for its crimes.  If the international community wants to see a new regime in Syria, then it has no choice but to isolate Assad while empowering the opposition.

A coup would likely be the fastest way to end the conflict.  The elite minority ruling Syria is interconnected by commerce, fear, and sectarian loyalty.  The Syrian elite thus far remain loyal to Assad, a testament to both Assad’s ability to instill fear and the strength of the elite pact.  However, no group’s loyalty is unlimited.  Defections within Syria’s officer corps and the severity of the country’s economic collapse reveal dissension within the ruling coalition.  Signs of weakness could be exploited in an effort to turn elite sentiment against Assad. 

The coup could be presented as the only means by which the elite can save their own hides.   Opposition fighters are gaining ground against Syria’s security forces and they intend on tearing down the whole political order, not just Assad.  If the elite stay loyal and lose to the revolution, then they will be at the mercy of the long-oppressed Syrian majority.  Yet, a successful move against Assad by members of his ruling coalition could soften hostilities.  The opposition’s symbolic enemy, Assad, would be gone and the international community could use the coup as an opportunity to pressure the conflicting parties towards negotiation. 

The second option, supporting a victory by the opposition, means that the conflict will continue unabated.  Continued warfare within Syria means thousands more will lose their lives, hundreds of thousands of refugees will flee conflict zones, and the country’s already devastated infrastructure will be further destroyed.  Being outgunned, the Syrian opposition can only win through attrition – inflicting minor wounds against security forces until the regime collapses.  The Syrian opposition is fragmented, internally competitive, and constituted of a diverse collection of organizations that are often as hostile to each other as they are to the regime.  Yet, the opposition is leading an effective revolution when it should have already been decimated.  They enjoy the support of much of the Syrian population and have been successful in pushing the conflict into Assad’s main areas of control.  As it stands today, the Syrian opposition cannot win militarily, but their capabilities are steadily improving.

The success of either of these options requires a great deal of luck.  Syria is in chaos and likely will remain so for the foreseeable future.  Trying to sow dissension among the elite may fail.  The opposition could prove unable to finish off Assad.  There are thousands of things that can go wrong in pursuing either of these options.  Yet, the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria must be stopped and the international community has limited their options.  Too much time has already been wasted on proposed political settlements and while the intent of these diplomatic efforts is good, they have only allowed Assad to continue his war against Syria itself.  If the international community will not directly intercede in the conflict, then it must support the opposition.  Otherwise, we are simply allowing a disaster to continue.      

Categories: Syria - revolution - insurgency - coup


I am not a big fan of violence, but I do believe that the world is better without Assad. I have been very clear about this from the beginning. To remove Assad, the opposition must be empowered to fight his military forces and defeat them. Anyway, by clicking here you can find some stunning information regarding the gender inequality at home.

Turning on the news a short while ago, I listened to another of the brief discussions about the situation in Syria -- with various film clips showing rebel fighters in an urban setting. I am not certain whether the reporter who was speaking was actually at the scene, but what caught my attention was how much better armed the rebels now appear versus months ago and the more defiant manner in which way they carry themselves (body language). Most of the ones I observed were carrying military style automatic weapons and at least one had a machine gun with an ammo belt (similar in style to an M-60). There was a lot of damage to the buildings indicating that fighting or shelling had taking place, but the expression on the rebels face was not fear or despair, but instead was the seriousness / determination one can notice on the faces of men in tough situations. In one of the film clips, again on an urban street with damaged buildings, there was a tank and another military vehicle burning in the background.

Regardless of what one means by the term, someone (an outside source such as the Saudi's?) is definitely "empowering" the Syrian rebels and providing them arms. The weapons they were carrying were not a diverse collection of guns from home. They were fairly uniform. A tank burning on the street combined with the ability to penetrate a key government defense building says something. Urban warfare doe not appear to being kind to the Syrian government forces. The new reporter noted the government was employing helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft.; How long will it be before the rebels foreign supporters provide them with surface to air missiles -- bye bye helicopters and jets that have to overfly the same target area.

From what I observed -- what caught my attention -- was that the rebels are definitely receiving military aid from somebody. Do / did the Syrians conscript large numbers of their Sunni population into their military and then release them after a year or two as part of their anti-Israel paranoia? If so, that might explain the somewhat military bearing of the rebel fighters in the film clips I watched.


Tue, 07/24/2012 - 8:53am

In reply to by roger in florida

It reminds me of something FDR said when asked about Somoza in Nicaragua, to which FDR stated that he admitted Somoza was a son-of-a-bitch, but added the caveat that Somoza was “our son-of-a-bitch.”

It would seem Bashar al-Assad (nor his father before him) has ever been our SOB, but those running the House of Sa’ud certainly have been.

roger in florida

Mon, 07/23/2012 - 3:38pm

So let's get this straight; the US, at the bidding of it's Saudi paymasters, encourages a bunch of political con men and islamic fundamentalists to wage war on a stable, secular state in which various minorities, including Christians, have been living in peace and relative prosperity for decades. The state under attack defends itself, as any state worthy of the name would do, and there is now a need to punish and remove, not the invaders but the people who ran the (peaceful) state.
For those who wish to see there has rarely been so great an opportunity to see who is really pulling the strings in Washington D.C. If there was the tiniest commitment to human rights and freedom in the actions of our political elite, the US would be formenting rebellion and revolution in Saudi Arabia, but they have made the payoffs, so are untouchable.

Mark Pyruz

Mon, 07/23/2012 - 12:12pm

Anyone here take notice of Iraq's position at the Arab League meeting, calling on Assad to step down? Iraq dissented, along the same lines as Iran's foreign policy position on the matter. The media is fond of characterizing Syria as Iran's closest ally but that is not so. Iraq is now Iran's closest ally; a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The authors of this piece support a rebel military victory over the Syrian army/security forces. It's now been made public that German intelligence identifies al-Qaeda and related Salafi groups as being in the vanguard of armed resistance to the Syrian regime. Amazing times, to see certain U.S. defense specialists cheerlead such Jihadis (not by name) in their armed struggle against Assad.

Dave Maxwell

Mon, 07/23/2012 - 10:20am

Excerpt from the NPR report at the link below. (comment: Resistance must be assessed to support potential policy decisions.)

QUOTE: One resident later tells me he has seen two undercover Americans passed through here. He says one gave the rebels a couple of high-end sniper rifles. The other was interested in the types of helicopters used by the Syrian regime. END QUOTE

In 'Free' Syrian Village, A Plea For U.S. Help

Dave Maxwell

Mon, 07/23/2012 - 8:52am

As a reminder unconventional warfare consists of activities to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through and with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.

While this is a military focused doctrinal definition (and of course shared battlespace on the ground with the CIA) as this linked Wall Street Journal article shows there is a significant interagency effort as part of any potential unconventional warfare operation.

But in the end the decision to conduct UW is a policy decision to be made at the highest level.…