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As Rebels Step Up Pressure on Damascus, Signs of New Phase for Syrian Conflict

November 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
As fighting near Damascus intensifies, widespread communication disruptions in Syria signals that the conflict is entering a new phase, with the rebels gaining ground. Margaret Warner talks to the Washington Institute's Andrew Tabler about the latest developments and how jihadists and Salafists are aiding the rebel cause.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on today’s developments and what they mean for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, I’m joined by Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was in rebel-held Syrian border regions in mid-November.

Andrew, welcome back.

ANDREW TABLER, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: First of all, how critical is the rebel seizure of some of these surface-to-air missile from the captured army bases?

ANDREW TABLER: They’re absolutely vital.

For months, the Syrian army has harassed rebel-held controlled territories. And what they were able to do is to bomb those areas into submission. With these missiles, these shoulder-fired missiles, they’re able to down Syrian aircraft of all types.

And it allows the Syrian opposition to have the possibility of actually setting up pure liberated territory, which is completely outside of the regime’s control.

And that sets the stage for a possible sort of Benghazi-like pocket that could push President Assad south and west.

MARGARET WARNER: So step back from all today’s news. What do you make of today’s developments, the Internet, the airport? Is the conflict entering a new phase?

ANDREW TABLER: It’s definitely entering a new phase.

The siege on the airport and the airport road and so on actually mimics a lot of other attacks on airfields throughout the country where rebels approach it with these kind of missiles, with machine guns and they make sure the planes can’t take off. And that way, they take care of the Syrian air force that way.

In terms of the Internet, we’re not sure exactly. It could be intentional. It could be the result of the power cut. It was also — the mobile system went out as well. Or it could be part of a plan. And in Damascus, people are panicking. They think that something is going on, that the regime is about ready to lash out and we’re waiting to see what that might entail.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you mean people, civilians on the ground, are panicking?

ANDREW TABLER: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: So, go back to the airport. There is this big battle for that access road into the airport and of course you had the two major airlines shutting down at least their service today.

How crucial is maintaining control of the airport and a functioning airport to the Assad regime’s hold on power?

ANDREW TABLER: Well, it’s not — it’s more of a sovereignty issue.

To capture the capital’s airport, which is east of — east of Damascus, an area where the rebels are active, it’s a major blow, but it’s a psychological and political blow. They have other airfields they can fly out of, but it’s a big loss for Assad. It’s a big embarrassment.

And it’s another sign that President Assad’s hold over geographic Syria is rapidly slipping.

MARGARET WARNER: But isn’t Assad believed to be restocking weapons and even aircraft through the air? I mean, they’re not being brought in by ship.

ANDREW TABLER: Absolutely. Sure. And they’re being resupplied. They have large stocks of weapons. They’re being helped out by the Iranians with the transformation of the Shabiha into what is called the…

MARGARET WARNER: The Shabiha being the sort of thugs…

ANDREW TABLER: Paramilitary organizations, Alawite forces.

The Russians also are backing them in one way, shape or form. Who hasn’t backed them is the United States and the West in terms of the rebel forces. And, of course, Syrians, especially the opposition, are quite angry about that.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s just touch on the Internet, too. If the Internet stays down, if cell phone service is severely curtailed, how much does that hamper the rebels’ ability to operate?

ANDREW TABLER: It does, because they’re unable to coordinate as effectively before.

You would be surprised what happens over mobile phones inside of Syria and also through the Internet and using smartphones.

MARGARET WARNER: And texting.

ANDREW TABLER: Right. But they still have two-way radios. They still have sat phones. They still have (inaudible) but it makes it harder for them, but not impossible.

And I think they will probably adapt. But it’s a sign that the — the Assad regime hasn’t done this until now, and it’s a sign that we’re entering a new phase.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think the Assad forces need the same infrastructure, or do they have their own?

ANDREW TABLER: Yes, I think they need it. And the question is, do they have their own closed network?

If it’s a result of a power failure to the main system, communications system, that’s one thing. If it’s the result of a plan — Hezbollah, for example, has its own communications system in Lebanon — if it’s something like that, then we’re looking at a — the regime lashing out possibly and communicating in that way.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in the video we just saw, at least that Damascus outfit, rebel outfit, was described as jihadist and Islamist.

How prevalent, how prominent are jihadists within the larger rebel forces at this point?

ANDREW TABLER: They’re a minority, but certainly Salafists are a main part of it, also Islamists in general.

And, very recently, we have seen an uptick in the number of jihadist Salafists within Syria. We have also seen, I think, that — more and more shoulder-fired missiles getting into their hands.

So the issue of arming or not arming opposition now, it might have just actually gotten away from the West. It seems like, unfortunately, the weapons that we feared were going to get into the wrong people’s hands has without us doing anything. And that’s a major problem and a security issue for the Obama administration.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, you were telling me before we came on that, in fact, you had seen another video that also suggests that. Tell us about that.

ANDREW TABLER: That’s right.

There was a video released that was a few days ago in which in the video it was an organization flying a black flag, clearly something jihadist, saying to Europeans and Americans, we don’t need you, we have these weapons, we are going to do it on our own.

So, our worst nightmare through neglect seems to be coming true in Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: And, quickly, how close is the U.S. to changing its policy at all, from what you have been able to discern?

ANDREW TABLER: I think it is on terms of recognizing the government in exile, what is called — which we — was formed in Doha recently.

In terms of arming the opposition, I’m not sure. I think it might actually possibly be something that’s been debated to death. But there still is no action out of the Obama administration. We were hoping it was going to happen earlier. It didn’t happen. And it seems now that the people, the jihadists and the Salafists are the ones who have the arms now, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft systems.

And the more secular forces and the mainstream forces and the people that sort of came out of the mainstream that we could deal with don’t seem to have those weapons. And the question is, what is the Obama administration going to do now?

MARGARET WARNER: A tough, tough decision.

ANDREW TABLER: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: Andrew Tabler, thank you.

ANDREW TABLER: My pleasure.