In just the latest demonstration of how terrible the humanitarian situation inside Syria has become, activists and human rights groups have reported the shocking discovery of 45 slaughtered civilians—women and young children included—in the Homs neighborhood of Karm el-Zeitoun. To observers in the western world, the size of the death toll is horrific. Yet for Syrians who have been under bombardment since March of last year, the incident is just another day in their increasingly violence-racked lives. The body count is also an affirmation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s absolute dedication to dealing with the protest movement through brute force of arms. Indeed, even with internationally respected and onetime UN Secretary General Kofi Annan making multiple rounds to Syria and putting his personal reputation at stake for an end to the violence, it is becoming increasingly difficult to consider his noble effort as anything but an exercise in futility. Assad has taken no prisoners, finding that it is far easier to kill his opponents than give them the time of day at the negotiating table.
Assad’s security operations have been deadly all along, but the past month and a half has been an especially bloody period, with the Syrian security forces showing no regard for human life or the slightest understanding of the concept of humanity. Much as Homs was bombed into submission, the northern Syrian province of Idlib, straddling the Turkish border, has been the latest object of the government’s artillery barrages. During one particularly disturbing day of shelling and shooting in February, close to 50 people died. It has become especially hard to differentiate those who are holding weapons for their own personal safety and those who are simply caught in the wrong place. But to make it simple for themselves, the government has not even tried.
Unlike in Homs, where tanks and mortar crews have done most of the work, Assad’s forces have used started to use foot patrols strapped with machine-guns to terrorize those suspected of aiding the opposition. The Associated Press posted a disturbing report late last month claiming that the Syrian army may have finally taken advantage of its air power, riddling the defectors and their supporters with bullets from above. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights—a British-based group in contact with thousands of protesters inside Syria—has built upon these early reports with similar accounts. If indeed these reports turn out to be true (and there is no reason to consider them false or misleading), then the voices in the west and in the Arab world that have been calling for a Libya-style no-fly zone may have just received more strength for their argument.
Yet amidst the repugnance and the absolute lack of any humanitarian inkling by the Syrian regime lies a military strategy that Assad himself views as a rational, calculating, and efficient way to save himself from the dustbin of history. He has decided to stake his personal reputation and that of his regime and family on the assumptions that force alone can irrefutably weaken, if not entirely defeat, the democratic movement into oblivion. At this point in time, there is no debate among the vast majority of the international community that Bashar al-Assad is a callous and crude dictator-turned-war criminal. But however crude he is does not mask the fact that he is far from stupid. Assad has shown throughout his 11 years in power that he is very good at surveying his neighborhood and taking advantage of his allies with a few major powers to buttress his own position. Indeed, he seems to have grasped the central lesson of the Arab Spring for any dictator who is only concerned with prolonging his rule: capitulate, and you will either find yourself dragged out of a storm drainage pipe and killed (like Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, or stuck in a steel cage as lawyers try to lock you in for good (Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak).
So what exactly is Bashar al-Assad trying to accomplish with all of these military operations? The most obvious answer, of course, is that he is attempting to root out his political opponents through sheer force, hoping that the deaths of family members and friends will deter others from coming out and voicing anger against the regime. But if that is indeed what Assad’s ultimate objective is, he has failed, for every death inside Syria has only mobilized more supporters for the opposition and strengthened the resolve of those that are already on the streets.
While only those close to him know for sure, Assad likely realizes that military force is the only way to protect the authority and legacy that his father has built since the Baa’th Party took over Syria in a 1963 coup. Yet what he does not seem to realize is that all of the machine-guns, AK-47 assault rifles, and Russian-made tanks in the world cannot dent the will, faith, and selflessness of his opponents, who have the United Nations General Assembly and history at their side.
From a pure military perspective, Assad’s war strategy is dubious, if not self-defeating. To date, the Syrian army has been trying to create a security buffer between the provinces—where most of the unrest has been percolating—and the two main cities that are crucial to the government’s support base (Damascus and Aleppo). These two cities are undoubtedly the government’s strongest electoral base, where Assad’s privatization policies have had the most effect in creating a middle-class of Syrian merchants and a proliferation of small business opportunities that were absent under the elder Assad’s system. Were Bashar to lose those two cities, his domestic support (which is rooted in Syria’s minority communities) could go the route of Homs, Idlib, Dara’a, Deir el-Zour, and Hama—areas that were once quiet, docile, and apolitical bubbles but are now bastions of resistance against the entire Baa’thist political and social order.
Assad’s reliance on Damascus and Aleppo also explains the reasons behind his seeming overreaction to the small protests in the capital that occurred in the middle of February, when troops and regime-supported Shabiha militiamen broke into homes and arrested anyone remotely connected to the demonstrations. He realizes, all to quickly, that the moment mass demonstrations and armed resistance creeps into Syria's most important cities, the people that would have otherwise supported the regime (for whatever reason) are now at risk of jumping to the other side.
The interesting component of Assad’s strategy is that while it is likely to fail in the long-term, it has proven remarkably effective in a tactical sense. Where protests have broken out in Damascus and Aleppo, they have been relatively small. Roving government minders and military personnel at the ready have deterred activists from generating more support in these respected areas—strengthening those in the international community who have argued that any international military intervention would be a step towards civil war. Protests in and around the capital that have been large enough to attract the world’s attention have been snuffed out by the Syrian army and police through classic martial-law style tactics: indiscriminate detentions, search and cordons, the protection of government buildings, and the cutting off of restive suburban neighborhoods from the city center.
Assad has also been smart to ensure that his supporters in the largely cohesive Syrian armed forces are not engaged in a prolonged period of hand-to-hand, conventional street fighting. Instead, the army has utilized the full extent of its rocket, mortar, and artillery arsenal—preventing those who would most likely defect if they were forced to shoot civilians on the spot. Relying on assault weapons and tanks outside the cities in order to soften up the enemy without risking major casualties is a core tenant of the regime’s approach to punishing dissenters and activists. Only when the civilian population is cowed and fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) withdraw do Syrian army units enter the town in significant numbers, at which point “mopping-up” operations take place and further war crimes are levied against people who were unable to escape.
Cracking down on dissent is one thing, but doing so multiple times across the country over an indeterminate period of time is something entirely different. Contrary to hopes that the Syria conflict would morph into something like Libya—when foreign officials, generals, and government ambassadors ditched Qaddafi’s regime as the revolt wore on—the Syrian army has stayed intact and united to the government.
The question for military and intelligence analysts going forward is whether even a united, modern, and fully equipped army like Syria’s can continue to divide an entire country against itself without regional powers joining the fight and trying to level the military balance on the ground. The resources, manpower, assets, command-and-control, training, and support would almost have to be perfect for such a divide-and-rule strategy to work, the Syrian army blocking resistance from coming into the capital. The more stretched that Assad’s troops become as the rebels come back into cities that were once cleansed, the more difficult it will be to accomplish that goal.
All of these difficulties will only increase if and when the United States and its Arab allies in the region make the move to funnel arms and equipment to the loosely-grouped FSA, which has taken the lead in ambushing regime forces and protecting demonstrators from Syrian Government attack. More weapons in the conflict translates into more responsibility and headaches for the Syrian armed forces, an institution that has not deployed such extensive resources since the 1973 Yon Kippur War. With lower-level conscripts continuing to ditch their army uniforms and streaming into the insurgency’s ranks, Assad may eventually come to discover that maintaining his islands of support in Damascus and Aleppo will be nearly impossible to keep up.
Unfortunately, we have yet to reach that point. Until we do, the Syrian Government will continue to insulate its supporters in Syria’s two largest cities from the violence that they are committing—hoping beyond all hope that somehow, someway, massive resistance against the regime stays in frontier cities and border areas.