Syria: The Crisis, The Rebels & The Endgame
In tonight’s two-part special report, The Battle for Syria, FRONTLINE journeys to the heart of the Syrian insurgency, embedding with rebels who are waging a full-scale assault on Assad’s forces. But how organized are Syria’s opposition groups? What dangers might the conflict unleash? And what would it take to end it?
FRONTLINE turned to 10 experts — Syrian activists, journalists who have reported from the country’s dangerous front lines and analysts who specialize in the region — to explain the long-term impacts of Syria’s deadly conflict.
Syria’s opposition, which has evolved since the uprising began in March 2011, is made up of diverse groups ranging from peaceful local coordinating committees to armed rebel groups and military councils, as well as external opposition councils based outside the country. Early on in the uprising, the opposition was broadly characterized as being divided, disorganized and lacking a clear vision, generating apprehension about leadership in a post-Assad Syria. In the months since, opposition groups within the country have become increasingly organized, though still troubled, while the external opposition has become increasingly marginalized.
You reported from the rebel-held town of Taftanaz in April and May. How well organized were the opposition groups you encountered?
Given the circumstances, I found the revolutionaries on the ground to be remarkably well organized. I traveled through Idlib governorate with activists and rebels and visited communities in which the state had disappeared altogether. In its place, revolutionaries had established councils to manage daily affairs, from sanitation to health care to schooling. Granted, this was all occurring under incredible duress — these villages get shelled and invaded by the Syrian Army regularly — which gave some of the structures an ad-hoc feel. But in spite of this, the Syrians I met were incredibly proud of what they had accomplished and pointed to these structures as an alternative to Assad’s rule.
There are hundreds of councils across Syria, but given government oppression it is difficult to coordinate on a national scale. Instead, most of these councils cooperate on a very local level. For instance, when I visited a town that had suffered from a brutal army offensive, the council from a neighboring town organized food and clothing aid.
On the operational and tactical level, I found the Syrian rebel fighters to be more well coordinated than the rebels I met during the Libyan revolution. In part, this might reflect the extended nature of the Syrian uprising, which has allowed the movement to mature. During my trip, it wasn’t possible to move around as openly as journalists do today, so it required coordination between dozens of people to get from one part of Idlib to the next. Revolutionary villages even developed a specialization of labor: I visited one that served as a way station for fighters crossing in to Turkey and so didn’t hold demonstrations at all, in order to escape the regime’s attention.
You’ve reported in “free” areas where the opposition has set up local councils and is working to run their own towns. How have the groups you’ve seen evolve over the past few months and how clear of a vision did they have of what it is they want?
… The Syrian opposition – in all of its many different forms – has often said that it wants the fall of the Syrian regime, but not the state. It wants to maintain its institutions including the army, but remove the regime loyalists.
I saw it in practice in the town of Saraqeb in Idlb province. There, locals have kept some parts of the old system – civil workers still front for work, people can get paperwork done, the trash is removed. But the Ba’ath Party’s headquarters were burned because, as one activist told me, it didn’t serve a useful purpose. These elements of the old system have been meshed with the new, in the form of the Local Coordination Committee (LCCs).
These LCCs exist throughout Syria. They started as local grassroots groups that helped organize protests and disseminate that information to the media. In Saraqeb and in other places they have morphed into social services providers as well. They are likely to play a role in any new post-Assad local governance system. Within each LCC there are positions with defined roles, [like] finance officer [or] military liason, that are filled by a vote. These positions are rotating, and the elections are held every few months or so.
The LCC is one of the largest networks of activists in Syria. The LCCs were initially formed with one committee per governorate in Syria; today we have more than 80 committees across the country.
The LCC helps organize demonstrations, manages civil disobedience campaigns, maintains a 24/7 news desk, communicates with media and human rights organizations, documents human rights violations, and distributes humanitarian relief across Syria.
A particular feature of the LCC is that it is committed to nonviolent struggle and civil disobedience. The LCC members stage protests, sit-ins, and media campaigns.
What is the LCC’s relationship with armed groups like the Free Syrian Army?
The two separate and distinct organizations collaborate at the level of security protection for peaceful demonstrators and in terms of working on a code of conduct, based on international law and the Geneva Conventions, that has been signed by multiple FSA battalions.
How successful has that code of conduct been in practice? What happens when there are documented examples of FSA units violating that code of conduct?
Originally 19 battalions signed the code. Now more than 28 have signed on, and this number increases every day. I do not know of any violations by signatories. Part of the code of conduct is accepting the consequences of violation – prosecution, with adequate legal representation, in a court of law. …
Is the opposition ready to lead if Assad falls? Is there an organized framework in place for when that happens? What role will the LCCs play?
The question is really about “when” Assad falls. There will certainly be a period of enthusiastic celebration, and there may be a period of chaos. However, multiple individuals in Syria and abroad are qualified to lead a transitional government. Many choose to remain anonymous for their personal safety. The transitional government would presumably pave the way for free and fair elections after a certain period of time, such as six months or one year.
The LCC will evolve, and may take on an oversight role to ensure that the transitional government is accountable and responsive to the public’s demands, but this has not yet been formally decided.
Where are armed groups getting funding and weapons?
Between the time when the U.N. ceasefire began in April and when rebel groups began their offensive across northern Syria at the beginning of June, rebels in northern Syria received large shipments of small arms and ammunition that allowed them to hit back against the regime much harder than before. In a raid or an ambush, you fire whatever ammo is available and then break contact after a few minutes of fire.
But a sustained offensive to overrun a regime checkpoint requires hours of suppressive fire. The increased capability alone indicates that the rebels gained a relatively assured supply of ammunition, and videos corroborate a larger proportion of new-looking RPGs and medium machine guns.
While it is still uncertain who provided that support, the difference during that period was Turkish willingness to open the border to arms transfers, or at least to look away while such exchanges went on. Most believe that the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, have provided the lion’s share of weapons, and indeed the two states have made no bones about their intent to arm the Syrian opposition. That said, the Turks have also given arms to opposition groups, and wealthy Syrian expatriates in western countries have pooled resources to buy weapons for the opposition.
Almost 80 percent of weapons and ammunition come from within Syria itself, either from corrupt officers who sell weapons and ammunition, or when they conduct operations and loot security headquarters or army barracks. The rest is coming from smuggling networks around the country, from Lebanon and Turkey and elsewhere.
You’ve encountered the Syrian opposition both within the country and outside it, in Turkey, for example. [What are some of the differences and conflicts between the two? Who is in charge?]
The opposition outside and inside are almost like two different movements. Outside, the Muslim Brotherhood and various Westernized liberals dominate. They speak in terms and concepts their interlocutors — either the Gulf States or the West — grasp easily, but lack any real legitimacy on the ground. If they disappeared tomorrow, I doubt much would change within the revolution.
The groups inside Syria, particularly the revolutionary councils, the coordinating committees and the armed resistance, are the driving force of the revolution. This is the revolution’s actual leadership, and there is considerable concern among the people I spoke to that if Assad were ever to fall, the revolution would be hijacked by expatriate groups. In fact, I could find hardly anyone with kind things to say about most of the Turkey-based opposition.
In the villages of Idlib I visited, the revolutionaries were running mini-states, based on a system of bottom-up democratically elected councils. In this sense, they’ve prefigured a possible post-Assad society far better than anything the expatriate opposition has offered. I was also struck by the extent to which themes of social justice and equality were dominant motifs in the discourse of revolutionary groups on the inside.
In the expatriate opposition, however, the discourse has largely avoided some of the economic questions that are at the heart of the uprising. I suspect this partly has to do with the differing backgrounds of the two groups — the urban-bound intellectuals among the expats vs. the poorer, working-class and rural masses that make up the backbone of the interior opposition.
The axis of gravity in the opposition has shifted from the external to the internal groups. The Syrian National Council (SNC), [a coalition of opposition groups based in Turkey that emerged early in the uprising], is now verging on the irrelevancy and has no control over the Free Syrian Army and other militias fighting inside Syria.
The internal dynamics have also shifted from the non-violent protest movement to the armed groups. They have shifted from the secular, almost non-ideological groups to the fundamentalist and religiously driven opposition.
We have witnessed the formation of revolutionary and military councils. There are nine revolutionary councils, the most sophisticated and most organized of which is the Homs revolutionary council.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) remains more a moniker for a wide variety of military groups and formations than a well-organized army with a command-and-control structure. New military formations are coming to the fore almost on a daily basis.
There are Salafi foreign fighters and groups. While their number cannot be confirmed independently, they are increasingly taking on a prominent role inside the armed opposition. In an attempt to cover its flank from the Salafis, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood formed and now fund their own military formations.
From the very beginning of the uprising, President Bashar al-Assad characterized the rebellion as the work of terrorists and a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the regime. The opposition has rejected those charges, accusing Assad of playing on fears of jihadi groups in order to preserve power. But as the crisis has continued, a few small groups spanning the Islamist spectrum have emerged within the opposition fighting the regime.
… The Syrian opposition is broad and very diverse — as broad and diverse as Syrian society itself. The revolutionaries are unarmed activists, armed rebels, Islamists, secularists, and everyone in between.
When traveling through Idlib, I visited towns that had once been hotbeds of the Muslim Brotherhood in the early ’80s, but today their presence in these areas is nearly nonexistent. I attended a protest where demonstrators chanted against Sheikh Adnan al-Aroor, a prominent ultraconservative cleric, alongside chants against Bashar al-Assad. The main jihadi group in one of the towns I visited was apparently so outnumbered by non-Islamist revolutionaries that they packed up and left.
With that being said, there is a growing number of small Islamist groups — by my count, at least six of them. Their increased importance is largely because they are more organized and less risk-averse than their secular counterparts. Since my spring visit to Idlib, two groups have very recently returned to the area and are staging daring attacks.
One, Jabhat al-Nusra, is frequently referred to as “Al Qaeda-linked,” but it is unclear what connection, if any, the group has to Al Qaeda proper, nor is it clear what “Al Qaeda-linked” even means functionally. Does it mean an interest in sowing sectarian war? Attacking the United States? We simply don’t know, nor do I suspect members themselves have worked this out, embroiled as they are in the more immediate struggle against the state.
The other group, Liwa al-Umma, under the command of an Irish-Libyan rebel, has also been labeled “extremist,” although if you actually listen to what they say, you’ll find that they more interested erecting an Islamic government than in waging transnational jihad.
But the real question is not whether there are Islamists in the revolution, but whether the character of the revolution itself is Islamist. The vast majority of Syrians are fighting for freedom, dignity, and a better livelihood. Most revolutionaries are Muslims, and they live, fight and make sense of the world through Islam, but that does not make them “Islamists.”
Nearly everyone I met in Syria invoked God often, prayed regularly, plucked their group names from the Quran, and so on, but this was all in the way of rooted social practice, not a politicized ideology of jihad. That so many Western officials seem to conflate the practice of millions of Muslims with the minority of radical political Islamists seems to me to be a symptom of Islamophobia more than anything else.
Jabhat al-Nusra, which was unknown until late January 2012, is the only [jihadi group in Syria] that may have ties to Al Qaeda. It has not said that it is affiliated with Al Qaeda, although many observers say that the group may inspire it. It has claimed responsibility for several of the more audacious bombing attacks on Syrian state security sites, including a double suicide bombing in Aleppo that left some two dozen dead.
… [But] Jabhat al Nusra is not one of the most prominent jihadi groups operating in Syria, neither in terms of its numbers nor its influence. It is a bit player in the armed uprising, which is still largely dominated by the defectors and armed civilians of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). There are also other larger Islamist groups on the ground.
From what I’ve seen, it’s comprised of both Syrians and other Arabs. A man using the nom de guerre Abu Mohammad al-Golani heads it, but little else is known about him. Some of its Syrian members are veterans of the fight against the Americans in Iraq, and they bring that experience — especially the manufacture of shaped charges and other explosives — to the battlefield. They operate independently of other members of the armed uprising, in the sense that they carry out their own operations, but not all the time. They also contribute to joint efforts led by the FSA that also include other Islamist groups.
… In terms of their interaction with the local communities in which they are based, they have not yet sought to impose their views on others. They largely keep to themselves and don’t mingle, except with other fighters, either FSA or Islamist. … Many of the FSA men I have met are wary of the Jabhat’s social conservatism, but insist that their brand of ultraconservative Islam will not find a home in any post-Assad Syria.
I was at a school that served as a shared FSA-Jabhat base for fighters in Idlib province. The Jabhat fighters were in the classrooms across the courtyard, a good 75 meters away from where I was sitting (in my conservative Muslim attire) with FSA guys. An Algerian fighter crossed the courtyard and said, “Excuse me sister, do you mind going inside?” He said his men might see me. I obliged. [I] didn’t want to cause a fuss or a fight. I asked the FSA men what kind of Syria their comrades across the courtyard were fighting for and if it was the same kind of Syria they wanted to see. The FSA men were embarrassed, apologetic and repeated a sentiment I have often heard when I ask that question: “We’ll deal with them later, but right now we need them. The question is, can they, will they? Is it already too late?
At the moment, many of the more secular fighters say that they need the help of groups like the Jabhat, because nobody else is assisting them. Many say they want the jihadists’ weapons, but not them, because they don’t have a shortage of men. But in a fight, they need every weapon they can get. One beer-guzzling FSA commander said: “If the army attacks us, will I tell them ‘Don’t fight the Syrian Army’? No. I won’t tell them that. I will thank them.”
What are some of the other Islamist groups operating in Syria? Is there infighting between them? With the local Syrians?
There are as many rivalries and differences among these groups as there are between some Islamists and secularists.
One of the larger armed Islamist groups in Syria is the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham brigades. They have units across the country, are well funded — reportedly mainly by Kuwait — and well armed with light weapons [like] Kalashnikovs [and] RPGs.
Some units of Ahrar al-Sham have had run-ins with locals in their areas sparked by Salafi attempts to prevent the sale of alcohol for example. They have faced pushback from these local communities and have tempered their actions rather than risk alienation. They do not shy away from saying that their goal is an Islamic state in Syria. It’s unclear how much support they can garner among Syria’s multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian society, although most people say not much.
Some smaller Islamist groups, and even FSA units, have adopted names with Sunni Islamist hues, taking their cues from famous historical Sunni battles or the names of Sunni fighters from the days of the Prophet Mohammad. Some have quite frankly told me that they do this in part to appease or please potential donors in the Gulf, especially clerics with massive fund-raising abilities.
In the same way, a growing number of anti-Assad fighters have taken to exhibiting some of the outward manifestations of Salafism, like wearing a beard but shaving the mustache. That doesn’t mean they are Salafis. In fact, many do not follow the ideology even though at first glance, they may look like Salafis. The beard, for example, is a way to instantly define a man as a Sunni, albeit a particular kind of Sunni.
In many ways, it is a gesture of defiance toward a regime that would sometimes lock up a bearded man on the suspicion that he was an Islamist. Cities like Hama and Jisr al-Sughour still bear the scars of the Assad regime’s earlier battle against the Muslim Brotherhood in the ’80s. The party was crushed, its members banished and it remains a capital offence to be a member of the party in Syria. So, it’s within this context that some of these Islamist groups have emerged. In many cases, they are the sons and grandsons of the Muslim Brotherhood of the ’80s.
Some recent reports from Yemen suggest that fighters with Ansar al-Sharia, a local affiliate of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have left Yemen to fight in Syria. Is there evidence that Ansar al-Sharia fighters are operating in Syria? Would they pose a unique risk versus other jihadi groups?
The reports of Yemenis fighting in Syria are unconfirmed, but certainly credible. Jihadis tend to react like six-year olds playing soccer: They chase the shiny ball — and right now that shiny ball is Syria.
Although jihadi ideology does have a political component aimed at a certain kind of governance, it extolls violence above all else. So a violent arena where the fight is seen as black and white is extremely attractive for these folks. Jihadis in Yemen certainly believe in the fight in Yemen, but that struggle has not had as widespread appeal as Iraq or Syria, where, respectively, the U.S. was seen to have invaded Muslim land and the Assad regime is considered infidel. Syria is a much bigger draw internationally.
One worrisome element about Yemeni jihadis in particular is that AQAP has adopted Al Qaeda’s global worldview far more than the others. That’s a bit scary when you think about Syria. Jihadis from Iraq, Libya, Algeria come to Syria bringing tactical know-how and the desire to create a jihadi-state in the wake of Assad. With jihadis from Yemen, there is more of a concern they will carry with them the intention to build a safe haven from which to launch jihadi attacks outside of Syria — against Israel and/or the West.
As the conflict has intensified, sectarian battle lines have become more apparent on both sides, with neighbors turning on their neighbors, stoking fears among some that the country could become mired in a long sectarian civil war.
Syria is about 70 percent Sunni, so it’s no surprise that Sunnis make up the majority of the Syrian opposition, [but] there are also Christian, Alawite and Druze members. The Kurds [a non-Arab minority that makes up an estimated 10 percent of the population] are split; some are with the regime and other groups are part of the opposition.
When the Syrian uprising kicked off some 18 months ago, it was a popular protest against a regime, not a Sunni fight against the country’s Alawite leader. Even as it morphed into an armed insurrection, it remained a popular fight against a regime, but the sectarian undertone is there and it is growing.
Before Hafez al-Assad came to power some four decades ago, the Alawites were a marginalized, discriminated community. Over the years he stacked his regime with his co-religionists and helped lift them out of their inferior status. But that’s not to say that all Alawites benefited from the Assads; there are many poor Alawite villages. The spoils went to a few.
Many Sunnis who resent the favored treatment some Alawites received under the Assads, however, don’t appreciate that nuance. The longer this conflict goes on, and the more blood that is spilled, the less important that distinction becomes.
Over the months, I have heard a hardening of sectarian language and sentiment, which is only likely to get worse. That’s the thing about civil wars — they brutalize a society and turn neighbors into enemies. Differences — social, economic, religious — become magnified as a means to justify the “otherness” of the enemy. It’s easier to kill somebody, I’m told, whom you cannot relate to. That’s why the sectarian undertone is so dangerous.
Syrians need only look at their neighbors Iraq and Lebanon to see how destructive the path of sectarian warfare can be. I remember an exchange early in February between an FSA fighter and a weapons smuggler about the price of ammunition. At the time a Kalashnikov bullet cost about $4. “Is that how much an Alawite is worth these days?” the fighter joked. “It’s too much.”
It’s undeniable that there’s a growing sectarian edge to the conflict, but its important to understand the context. The Syrian regime itself is deeply sectarian, and through patronage and other means minority groups have historically been linked to the state. It’s no surprise then that when the officer corps consist largely of Alawites, and Alawite villages have abstained from the revolution, that members of the Sunni majority would see this all through a sectarian lens.
However, with that being said, it’s important to understand what this does not mean. I don’t believe it is accurate (yet) to call this a sectarian civil war, because the logic of resistance to Bashar al-Assad’s state still drives the uprising. Compare this to Iraq, where we did indeed have a sectarian civil war — Sunnis placing bombs in Shia mosques and vice versa — in which the logic was the political and physical removal of sects.
Moreover, the key divide that characterizes the revolution may not be sectarianism, but class. In Aleppo, many middle- and upper-class residents don’t support the rebels, whom they see as representing the unwashed countryside poor. You could say the same of upper-class Damascenes. This attitude crosses sectarian lines — in fact, an alliance of Sunni businessmen and the Alawite security apparatus has historically been bedrock of the regime. There are signs that this alliance is breaking down, but certainly not to the point where the regime can no longer hold on.
For the regime, sectarianism is a narrative tool to keep the silent majority on the sides for fear of a worse scenario if Assad goes. Unfortunately, the spike in violence may be giving that narrative a boost.
There are hard facts that give the conflict a sectarian dimension:
First, as the regime contracts, the inner circle has been reduced to its Alawite core, with the main victims of Arab Sunni background. Second, there is a proxy battle being waged by the external backers of the regime (Iran, Russia) and external backers of the Free Syrian Army (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and indirectly the United States), with spillover effects that are manifesting along sectarian lines. Third is the now-evident social-ethnic tensions that were long present in Syria, but previously suppressed as public issues, such as the status of the Kurdish population.
In terms of the insurgency, however, researchers monitoring the proliferation of militias at the Syria Conflict Monitor have not found widespread references to sectarian or religious affiliation in unit identities. But given the realities of the unfolding conflict, and the growing sentiments of fear of the other and feelings of vegenence, the issue of sectarianism will be extremely relevant to achieving a political transition for Syria and restoring stability in a post-conflict setting.
The LCC continues to work with communities across Syria to deliver anti-sectarian messages. We deliver relief assistance to people from all communities, regardless of sect or ethnicity. More recently, we have started a campaign to declare every Wednesday “Non-Sectarian Day.” We hope to show footage of demonstrations in which protesters are carrying banners that say, “Alawis and Christians are my brothers,” and similar messages of inclusion and solidarity.
Is there evidence this is having an impact with Alawites in the country or doing anything to placate fears?
Every day more and more minorities – not just Alawites, but Christians, Kurds, Ismailis, and others – join the revolution or speak out against regime atrocities. Other key members of minority groups have been anonymously playing significant roles in intercepting information and passing it on to both activists and members of the Free Syrian Army. In addition, the biggest relief donors are inside Syria, and many of them are from minority groups.
There are reports that thousands of the country’s Alawites are fleeing to regions with bigger Alawi populations like Latakia and Tartous. Some have even speculated the eventual formation of an Alawite state in these coastal areas as an option of last resort. What are the prospects for some sort of a separate Alawite refuge in Syria as the conflict continues?
Whether or not an Alawite state could survive, Syria’s Alawite community could fall back to the coast as a last resort, and some evidence suggests that the regime has helped lay the groundwork for such a last-ditch effort.
In the opening months of the uprising, the Assad regime invested a disproportionate amount of force in major clearance operations in Sunni enclaves within the coastal cities of Banias and Latakia, as well as in the Sunni enclave of Tel Kalakh, which sits on the highway that connects Homs with the coast. Protests in these areas were relatively minimal compared with places like Homs and Hama, and yet the regime cleared them all more than once during the summer of 2011.
Furthermore, I think it is important to note that Iran may be willing to back an Alawite effort to carve out such an enclave as an acceptable alternative to the former Assad regime. I’ve been told that a frequent topic of conversation in Lebanon is whether Iran and Hezbollah may be prepared to work towards such an outcome together.
So this is a possible last-ditch effort, but with the current trajectory of the conflict — i.e. short of major foreign intervention — this would not begin to materialize for years to come. Assad will not give up Damascus, and the preponderance of security forces around the capital suggests that the regime will be in a position to hold it well into 2013. …
Similar to what happened in Lebanon in the 1980s and [Iraq] in the mid 2000s, sectarian communities will start [to] segregate in their own enclaves that can be protected by their militias. This is happening among Alawites in Syria. More than an Alawite state, a more likely scenario is the establishment of a well protected Alawite-majority region similar to the Shiite-majority southern Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah and to Sadr City in Iraq. This scenario is being discussed among Alawite elders. So far, it is reported that Syrian President Assad and his family are not interested in the proposal mainly because they believe that they could still win this fight and remain in control of Syria.
I don’t believe that there is a realistic prospect for a retreat of Alawi communities to the mountainous areas of northwest Syria, as some have suggested. Over the course of the last 80 years or so, Alawi communities have become increasingly urbanized and no longer represent a unified, geographically distinct bloc.
What is more, I am unconvinced that most Alawis would choose to follow the regime rather than stay where they are if the Assads do retreat to their traditional base. Increasing numbers of Alawis are already in touch with the opposition — at great risk to their safety — seeking the sort of reassurances that will encourage them to abandon the regime.
Where do Syria’s Kurds, who make up between 7 to 10 percent of the population, stand in the revolt against the regime? What’s preventing more of their participation? Could they be a decisive minority in the revolt?
The Kurds are the largest distinct ethnic/linguistic minority in Syria. Unlike their Iraqi brethren, Syrian Kurds are less geographically concentrated. So far the Kurds have been getting their own house in order and hedging their bets. …
Despite a history of protest against the Assad regime, the latest of which being the 2004 rebellion, Kurds are wary of a post-Assad Sunni Arab Islamist political order should it come to power, because they believe that it won’t be less hostile to their aspirations. They are distrustful of the Syrian National Council because they believe it is too close to the Turkish authorities. At the Cairo conference organized by the Arab League on July 2 to unite the Syrian opposition, the Kurdish parties … withdrew from the conference due to its non-recognition of Kurdish demands.
One senior Kurdish leader I interviewed last February told me that they believe the uprising is mainly a Sunni-Alawite fight, and that the best course for their community would be to stay on the sidelines of this fight. …
The Humanitarian Situation
August was the deadliest month since the Syrian rebellion began a year and a half ago, with more than 5,400 people, a significant majority of them civilians, killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a widely-cited London-based opposition group. Observers say August’s spike in casualties — three times higher than the average since the uprising began — came as fighting reached the country’s largest city, Aleppo, and the Assad regime began widely unleashing air power there to crush the revolt.
The daily life for civilians in Aleppo city and northern Aleppo governorate has changed dramatically over the last couple of months.
By the end of July when we arrived in the Aleppo countryside, government forces had retreated from most areas, leaving the opposition largely in control. Large numbers of civilians who had fled to Turkey and other towns because of the [earlier] fighting between government and opposition forces gradually started returning. Local opposition authorities started setting up parallel governance structures to remove garbage from the street, rebuild houses, solve disputes between local residents. In short, people in the towns in northern Aleppo were trying to get back to their daily life.
The efforts by people in Tel Rifat, a town about 30 km. north of Aleppo city, made a special impression on us. By the time we arrived in early August they had created a dabeta — a local governing council — that was trying to fill the governance vacuum. Many of them were sincerely trying to establish good structures, but it was also clear that they did not have the expertise necessary to do so.
“I used to sell nuts and bolts,” one of them [told] us. “I have no idea how to run a city — and I don’t want to do it — but somebody has to.” They desperately wanted us to give them advice. For all their challenges, however, local residents appeared to feel relatively safe since the main battle was by then taking place in Aleppo city.
In mid-August, however, this changed. Government forces started launching aerial attacks, increasingly attacking opposition-controlled towns in northern Aleppo. In Tel Rifat, a fighter jet attacked the school where the dabeta had established its headquarters. In the same attack, however, the jet dropped a bomb on a nearby house, killing at least nine people from the same family. By the time we returned to Tel Rifat about a week after the attack, the town was again a virtual ghost town and there were daily attacks in the area.
Perhaps the most devastating attack that we documented was the Aug. 15 attack on Azaz, the Syrian town closest to the Turkish border… We received information that a fighter jet had attacked the town. As we were making our way back to the town to document the aerial attack, we were met with a stream of tractors, cars and trucks filled to the brim with people fleeing the town. Closer, we started seeing broken glass in the street and pieces of concrete strewn on the road. When we stopped, a group of men took us to a damaged house, which we assumed had taken the brunt of the attack. But I was wrong; as we climbed on top of the rubble [that] once had formed the back wall of the house, we suddenly saw the main impact area.
The attack had completely flattened half a block, reducing 22 houses — according to the people there — to mountains of rubble. Across the street, a three-story building was missing its entire façade. By the time we arrived, most of the killed and injured had been taken away, but bulldozers were still removing rubble in search of people believed to be trapped under the rubble. Through phone calls to local hospitals later that night we counted 46 dead and more than 100 wounded.
The aerial attacks, which continue to this day, have made the towns in northern Aleppo unsafe again for civilians. An attack on a town usually prompts hundreds, if not thousands, to pack up and leave for Turkey or neighboring towns. Since they usually leave in a hurry, they often lack basic necessities, such as mattresses, blankets and cooking utensils, putting enormous pressure on the local communities that are suddenly forced to absorb the displaced. Adding insult to injury, government forces have also frequently attacked bread lines, making it a potentially deadly exercise to queue up in the hours-long lines to get bread for your family.
There is currently very little delivery of aid to these areas, partly because the Syrian government prevents aid organizations working in government-controlled areas to also deliver aid to opposition-controlled areas, and partly because continuous aerial attacks make it dangerous to do so.
Of particular concern is the lack of medical assistance. Doctors in the area are doing incredibly courageous work helping the wounded, but they also come under attack. The main emergency hospital in opposition-controlled area had been attacked seven times by the time we left, completely destroying the upper floors of the hospital. For many, the only option is medical treatment in Turkey, which has kept its borders and hospitals open for wounded people from Syria.
The stories I am encountering from Homs show the impact of protracted civil war on ordinary lives. Normality has been completely suspended for more than a year, with those remaining in the city effectively imprisoned in their homes for weeks at a time due to threats of shelling, sniper fire and kidnappings. Women are most impacted by the stranglehold as they are dependent on male escorts to move about due to the tremendous safety threat.
Families too are physically divided, with some members having fled the country or found shelter outside of Homs during its long siege. Others that have stayed due to a lack of options or trepidation of life as refugees are crowded together in abandoned homes or structures or in safer ground or first floor apartments. Access to food, electricity and communications varies neighborhood by neighborhood, but without regular work and the rare opportunity to leave their homes, life remains on hold for Syrians while public services and the trappings of statehood disintegrate around them. …
Individual reports from Homs and anecdotal evidence from places like Aleppo where fighting has forced thousands to flee their homes suggest that frustration over the humanitarian conditions may be leading some to direct anger at the FSA or to entrenched support for the regime. In other areas, the FSA is viewed by many as the single protective measure available to them and the single hope for ending the conflict. Syria is fracturing at the national, regional, city and even familial levels.
… One of the most recent alleged massacres took place in Daraya, a suburb just south of Damascus. Local activists have provided us with the names of more than 500 people who were allegedly killed in the course of the week in late August when government forces launched attacks and entered the area, which had been considered an opposition stronghold. Since the incident, we have interviewed more than a dozen eyewitnesses over phone and Skype. We have also examined satellite imagery to determine government troop movements and destruction to civilian infrastructure. We are currently carefully comparing witness-statements and satellite imagery to corroborate various allegations. So far, the evidence we have gathered indicates that government forces are responsible for at least several incidents of extrajudicial executions. The government has claimed that the executions were committed by opposition forces, but so far we have not seen any evidence of this.
The massacre in Daraya follows a pattern we have documented in other places. We also saw that government forces or pro-government militias killed civilians during military offensives in Homs, Houla and Idlib. In Idlib, we were able to document extrajudicial executions firsthand when we visited five towns in April shortly after government forces had attacked the towns. Examinations of the scenes where civilians had been lined up and executed and interviews with neighbors and other witnesses left no doubt: Government forces and pro-government militias had executed at least 35 people in cold blood when they entered these towns. These and other findings led us to conclude that government forces have committed crimes against humanity.
What about other allegations of abuse — politically motivated kidnappings, torture and executions — carried out against regime members or supporters by opposition forces?
One of our priorities during our last mission to Syria, which took place in August, was to also investigate allegations of abuse by opposition forces. We interviewed detainees in the custody of opposition civilian authorities and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). We also spoke to numerous opposition leaders and FSA fighters.
Half of the detainees whom we interviewed told us that they had been tortured or ill treated during their detention. In particular, several detainees told us that FSA fighters and people in charge of detention facilities had beaten them on the soles of their feet, a torture method sometimes referred to as falaqa.
When we confronted opposition leaders with our findings, they said that they had instructed fighters and others to not torture, but that falaqa was permissible because it didn’t cause any injuries. According to international law, however, torture is defined as the deliberate infliction of pain, which, of course, applies also to falaqa, even if it does not lead to injuries. We raised this issue with opposition authorities, and they promised us that they would instruct their troops that falaqa is not permissible either.
Of great concern, however, is a number of reports of extrajudicial executions. While we were still in Syria, a YouTube video surfaced about the killing of four alleged members of a pro-government militia in Aleppo city. FSA fighters took a fifth member to the town where we stayed and despite assurances from opposition leaders, we believe that the fifth member was also executed.
When we confronted opposition leaders with this issue they said that they were opposed to such killings. At the same time, however, several of the leaders told us that “Those who killed deserved to be killed” and that only the “worst criminals” who were executed. We are very worried about this apparent tolerance – or even condoning – of extrajudicial and summary executions. In the context of an armed conflict, such executions – as well as torture – are war crimes and opposition leaders should be unequivocal in condemning such crimes.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been fleeing the country through its borders with Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. What are the impacts of this influx in the areas you’ve visited?
All of Syria’s neighbors deserve credit for their willingness to receive Syrian refugees, and it is important that they continue to do so. As of Sept. 14, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had registered almost 205,000 refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, with the largest number of refuges being in Turkey. The actual number of refugees is likely significantly higher as not all refugees register officially.
Worryingly, the refugee influx has been increasing. Almost half of the refugees left in August alone, many as a direct result of the government’s increased use of aerial attacks. The huge influx of refugees puts enormous pressure on the neighboring countries. Turkey, for example, has said that it is only able to accommodate about 100,000 refugees, a limit that is fast approaching.
The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has just reported there are more than 65,000 Syrians in Lebanon who are receiving local and international assistance. Of these, 46,509 are registered with UNHCR, and 18,532 are awaiting registration. Seventy-nine percent of those registered are women and children. Based on UNHCR estimates, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is expected to reach 100,000-120,000 by the end of this year. …
The Lebanese government still lacks a strategic plan for dealing with the crisis. There are problems with putting shelters in place, finding schools for Syrian children since the country’s public schools are already overcrowded, and for Syrian men to find jobs. For a country that is already suffering under a heavy load of public debt and whose social services delivery system is less than adequate, adding this large number of Syrians to the mix, is starting to tax the capacities of the Lebanese authorities and those of the Lebanese civil society.
What are the longer-term regional ramifications of the Syrian refugee crisis?
These figures point to the reality of what is a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis. Those refugees join millions of others across the region – some of who have been tragically without a permanent home for decades. These refugees can also represent a huge strain on local communities, and are likely to affect the security and stability of neighboring states.
Syria has five of the most sensitive borders in the world and instability on those borders represents a dangerous development. We face the prospect of increasing terrorism and insecurity in Turkey, the reigniting of sectarian conflict in Lebanon, a further uptick in Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq, and even the possibility that Israel’s northern borders will be challenged or compromised.
When the Syrian uprising first broke out, there were many who predicted it would be mere months before President Assad’s regime fell. A year and a half later, and a slew of failed international efforts to resolve the crisis, the regime is still intact. What’s behind its survival, and what would it take to end the conflict?
Early assessments about the inevitable fall of Assad were immature because they did not take into account the makeup of the Syrian military and security forces. In Egypt, the military refused to put down the protests; in Libya, almost half of the military defected at an early stage.
But the Syrian military has been fundamentally loyal to the regime, and willing to use “all means necessary” to put down the uprising. This is primarily because the vast majority of officers in command positions in the military are Alawite. The officer and non-commissioned officer corps are also disproportionately Alawite. On the other hand, the majority of the Syrian military rank-and-file is made up of Sunni conscripts.
Therefore, the Assad regime has been very careful in how they’ve employed their forces by limiting the exposure of less politically reliable units. From a very early stage the regime began to task organize its units, pairing praetorian crack troops from the 4th Armored Division with troops from regular army units. Add to this a cadre from the regime’s four overlapping intelligence services to keep an eye on potential defectors, as well as sectarian paramilitary thugs, known as shabiha, to do the dirty work of going house to house to kill, capture and abuse. The regular army units provide outer security in this task-organized force, which shields them from direct contact with the population.
Furthermore, huge portions of the military have been kept in their barracks rather than risk defections; some estimates suggest that the regime is only employing 30 percent of its force.
Despite these efforts, a huge portion of the Syrian Army has defected, as much as a quarter. But the defections have taken place at the individual level, or at most among small teams. The fact that we haven’t seen combat units defect en masse goes to show how effective the regime has been at preventing military collapse. Because of this continued cohesion among the regime’s core military formations, it is unlikely that the rebels will defeat the Syrian Army on the battlefield and storm the presidential palace. It is far more likely for Assad to fall through a coup, an assassination, or a brokered asylum deal. And as long as the military holds together, that last option is unlikely.
The decision-making core in the Assad regime has been reduced to a small group including the president, his family members and his most trusted advisors, the majority of whom are Alawite.
Despite the spate of defections, to date we have not seen cracks in the Alawite security apparatus making up the regime inner circle. The senior leadership corps in the Syrian Army still stands by the regime. Also the main leadership bodies in the Ba’ath Party, which includes Sunnis, have so far remained [loyal] to President Bashar al-Assad. The longer the conflict protracts, the more bloodied it gets, the more reluctant senior military and security figures will be to defect because they will be afraid of international criminal investigations.
The soldiers who are still fighting are doing so for different reasons. There are some who want to defect but cannot do so due to logistical difficulties and fears for their families’ future. There are the soldiers who have bought into the regime narrative that they are defending their country against a bunch of terrorists and foreign conspirators. There are the soldiers who have not made up their mind about which narrative to believe, and they are fighting because it is their job and they are being paid for doing their job.
The losses in the military rank and file due to defections have been made up by increasing numbers in the pro-regime paramilitary death squads known as shabiha. The regime still has substantial support among Syria’s Alawites, Christians and Druze. In particular, the great majority of Alawites has linked their physical survival to Assad’s political survival. While the rural Sunnis have joined the revolution and make up the backbone of the rebel ranks, a good percentage of urban Sunnis, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, is worried about a post-Assad future.
More telling is the mindset now prevalent inside the regime ruling clique especially President Assad. They feel much stronger than ever. They have survived the uprising thus far. Faced with a divided international community, they feel they can do whatever they want and get away with it. …
In the absence of a united international will to pressure and isolate Bashar al-Assad, his regime was always likely to last longer than some expected. At the outset, many assumptions were based on the eventual alignment of international powers behind a transition of power — particularly once the Arab League had backed that course. Alongside the impotence of a divided U.N. Security Council, the regime was able to benefit from the direct support of reliable allies in Iran and Russia.
On the other side, those in the international community that have called for an end to Assad’s rule have not shown the political will to adopt some of the tougher options in support for Syrians striving for that goal on the ground.
In addition to financial and other sanctions targeted towards regime figures, the U.S. and other Western allies have — at least until very recently — largely relied on a fruitless diplomatic course centered on shifting Russia and China’s stance.
In the meantime, the Assad regime’s brutal campaign against protestors – civil and armed – has been calibrated to make the most of this diplomatic back-and-forth. While its modus operandi has always been fear, intimidation, and violence, the regime has gradually escalated the severity of its onslaught in a way that allowed it to maintain the degree international support necessary for its survival.
At this point in the conflict, Iran is putting a lot of resources and energy into propping up the Assad regime, but they are likely to be working toward a second course of action in case of regime collapse.
Iran has had great success working with proxy forces in the past, and while the loss of Assad would constitute a strategic blow for Iran, the Islamic Republic could salvage much of its position in the Levant by developing a close relationship with the elements of the regime that will continue to fight the Sunni opposition even after Assad falls. This means training and working with Alawite shabiha paramilitaries, but in the event of regime collapse, this would also mean the remainders of praetorian Alawite units such as the Republican Guard and 4th Armored Division.
The Iranians are gaining influence in Syria now by the day. … They used to provide strategic advice to Assad regime. In a second phase, they started to provide operational and tactical advisers. Nowadays, they are even leading operations and leading assaults on certain areas with the help and assistance of their own Revolutionary Guards and officers underground, [who are] present in various operations and areas. Many [of these Iranians] have been kidnapped, arrested by the Free Syrian Army, and shown on TV with their ID’s and their names. They are officers in the Revolutionary Guards.
… The only way to counter the Iranian influence, and quickly, is by providing technical and strategic assistance to the rebel fighters’ units and battalions, unifying different fighting groups and revolutionary councils in different areas, and working the way from bottom up.
At this point in the conflict, is a diplomatic or negotiated political solution still possible?
The blood spilled in this conflict has gone a long way to preclude a political solution to this crisis, and the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict has made such a solution extremely unlikely. Even if Assad left Damascus tomorrow, this conflict would grind on. Even a year ago it would have been difficult to stop Syria’s descent into civil war; the Assad regime is built in such a way that makes it incapable of reform. When the regime responded to protests with force, the opposition resolved to settle for nothing less than Assad’s head.
There is always room for working on a political solution even in the midst of a violent conflict as is the case now in Syria.
As former joint U.N.-Arab league envoy Kofi Annan said in his Financial Times op-ed piece, a mediator, no matter how skilled s/he is, cannot desire a political solution more than the parties to the conflict. The Syrian parties are not at a stage of desiring a political solution. Both the regime and the armed opposition have now embraced the military solution as the only means to bring this conflict to an end. Each side believes the momentum is on its side. No negotiated solution is possible until these mindsets change.
Regional powers which have been supporting the two sides in the conflict are in the best position to bring about such a change in the antagonists’ mindsets.
Iran can influence the Syrian leader and his coterie of military and security loyalists. Iran must realize that a negotiated solution that is predicated on Assad remaining in power is no longer possible. Saudi Arabia and Turkey command a similar level of influence over the opposition ranks. Both must also realize that a deal that won’t preserve some of the regime vestiges including keeping in place some of the senior military officers is also not possible.
[Egyptian President Mohammed] Morsi’s proposal to establish a regional crisis management cell consisting of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran is to date the best framework to coordinate the efforts of the four influential regional powers for the purpose of bringing the Syrian parties to the negotiation table.
With the balance of power inside and outside Syria amongst activists decidedly against political dialogue there is virtually no apparent opportunity at present for a negotiated end of the conflict. …
The stalemate does not mean that we should take political options off the table and wait it out. … Syrian opposition leaders have said that they would be open to [political transitional scenarios like a power-sharing arrangement] with people who “do not have blood on their hands.” Who are those people? What state institutions would survive fundamental regime change under these conditions? What near-term protection strategies for minorities could contribute to a transition of power and mitigate destabilizing factors? These are the sorts of questions that we need to be thinking about, even if no political horizon is yet visible.
First, the U.S. must accept that this conflict will last a long time, and that the dynamics shaping it are too powerful to try to control. The previous policy debates in Washington have been overcome by events.
While the U.S. has debated whether or not to arm the opposition, the rebels found sponsors in the Gulf to give them weapons. While the international community debated the merits of establishing a safe-zone, the rebels diligently went about carving a safe zone out for themselves in northern Syria. As the debate over providing surface-air missiles to the rebels heats up, the rebels have begun to overrun regime airbases and use heavy machine guns with increasing effectiveness.
That said, the U.S. could take important steps to manage risk and shape this conflict at the margins by developing relationships and supporting emerging and responsible institutions within the Syrian opposition movement.
Some of these steps are already in the works, such as efforts to distribute communications equipment to opposition groups in an attempt to deepen relationships with them. Providing weapons directly could support responsible opposition leaders, but trying to outspend the competition could exacerbate competition between rebel groups.
Ultimately, the U.S. needs to take a leadership role by convincing the Gulf state sponsors and Turkey to support nascent institutions like the Free Syrian Army’s provincial military councils, rather than their favorite independent rebel brigades.
Competition between rebel groups for arms, money and influence is becoming an uncomfortable reality in key areas of the country. This is a trend, which is likely to continue absent a greater effort to organize and influence the armed opposition.
… State Department officials have recently been engaged in impressive efforts to encourage opposition consensus on a common vision for the future of the country. Washington must now also redouble its efforts to familiarize itself with the military dimension of the opposition – as it has indeed begun to do.
Meanwhile, the U.S. should continue to directly target the core elements of the regime — now stripped to a handful of families and a cadre of Alawi security officers — in order to encourage their abandonment from the regime. Increased pressure, and threats of legal action in international courts should be accompanied by incentives offered to those willing to turn on Assad.