The wave of Arab unrest that began with the Tunisian revolution reached Syria on March 15, 2011, when residents of a small southern city took to the streets to protest the torture of students who had put up anti-government graffiti. The government responded with heavy-handed force, and demonstrations quickly spread across much of the country.
What cannot be ignored, though, is the fact that ISIS has spelled out India’s name as one of its prime targets outside Iraq, Syria, and the Levant. Ignoring the ISIS will only be at our own peril.
President Bashar al-Assad, a British-trained doctor who inherited Syria’s harsh dictatorship from his father, Hafez al-Assad, at first wavered between force and hints of reform. But in April 2011, just days after lifting the country’s decades-old state of emergency, he set off the first of what became a series of withering crackdowns, sending tanks into restive cities as security forces opened fire on demonstrators. In retrospect, the attacks appeared calculated to turn peaceful protests violent, to justify an escalation of force.
Neither the government violence nor Mr. Assad’s offers of political reform — rejected as shams by protest leaders — have brought an end to the unrest. Similarly, the protesters have not been able to overcome direct assault by the military’s armed forces or to seize and hold significant chunks of territory.
In the summer of 2011, as the crackdown dragged on, thousands of soldiers defected and began launching attacks against the government, bringing the country to what the United Nations in December called the verge of civil war. An opposition government in exile was formed, the Syrian National Council, but the council’s internal divisions have kept Western and Arab governments from recognizing it as such. The opposition remains a fractious collection of political groups, longtime exiles, grass-roots organizers and armed militants, divided along ideological, ethnic or sectarian lines.
The conflict is complicated by Syria’s ethnic divisions. The Assads and much of the nation’s elite, especially the military, belong to the Alawite sect, a minority in a mostly Sunni country. While the Assad government has the advantage of crushing firepower and units of loyal, elite troops, the insurgents should not be underestimated. They are highly motivated and, over time, demographics should tip in their favor. Alawites constitute about 12 percent of the 23 million Syrians. Sunni Muslims, the opposition’s backbone, make up about 75 percent of the population.
From bases in refugee camps on the Turkish side of the border, the flow of weapons, medical supplies and money increased.
The United States and countries around the world condemned President Assad, who many had hoped would soften his father’s ironhanded regime. Criticism has also come from unlikely quarters, like Syria’s neighbors, Jordan and Turkey, and the Arab League. Syria was expelled from the Arab League after it agreed to a peace plan only to step up attacks on protesters. In late 2011 and early 2012, Syria agreed to allow league observers into the country. But their presence did nothing to slow the violence.
In February 2012, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to approve a resolution condemning President Assad’s unbridled crackdown on the uprising, but China and Russia, Syria’s traditional patron, blocked all efforts for stronger Security Council action.
Tensions have also spilled over borders into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, and fears have increased with evidence that Al Qaeda was behind a rise in suicide bombings in 2012.
By the summer of 2012, the conflict had greatly increased in tempo and violence on all sides, as advocacy groups estimated that about 400 died in June 2011 and more than 3,000 people in June 2012. According to estimates from the United Nations, the conflict has left more than 10,000 dead, thousands more displaced. The Syrian government has waged an unrelenting campaign of arrests that has snared tens of thousands of people.
In cities throughout Syria, including the capital, Damascus, and the largest city, Aleppo, the opposition had coalesced around armed groups identifying themselves as elements of the Free Syrian Army. From bases in refugee camps on the Turkish side of the border, the flow of weapons, medical supplies and money increased.
Since the summer of 2012, rebel commanders on the ground in Syria have begun to coordinate tactically in order to plan operations and combine resources.
As the conflict has continued without resolution, Syrians involved in the struggle say it is becoming more radicalized: homegrown Muslim jihadists, as well as small groups of fighters from Al Qaeda, have been taking a more prominent role and demanding a say in running the resistance.
Recent months have witnessed the emergence of larger, more organized and better-armed Syrian militant organizations pushing an agenda based on jihad, the concept that they have a divine mandate to fight. Even less-zealous resistance groups are adopting a pronounced Islamic aura because it attracts more financing.
The Role of Non State Actors
The Free Syrian Army
Fragmentation and disorganization have plagued Syria’s armed opposition since peaceful protestors took up arms in December 2011 and began forming rebel groups under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. A lack of unity has made cooperation and coordination difficult on the battlefield and has limited the effectiveness of rebel operations. Since the summer of 2012, rebel commanders on the ground in Syria have begun to coordinate tactically in order to plan operations and combine resources. This cooperation has facilitated many important offensives and rebels have taken control of the majority of the eastern portion of the country, overrunning their first provincial capital in March 2013 with the capture of al- Raqqa city. However, rebels have been unable to capitalize on these successes, and fighting has largely stalemated along current battlefronts particularly in the key areas of Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.
In order to overcome the current military stalemate, the opposition needs to develop an operational level headquarters that can designate campaign priorities, task units to support priority missions, and resource these units with the proper equipment to execute their missions. Recently, the opposition has established a new national military structure that may grow to serve this purpose. On December 7, 2012, rebel leaders from across Syria announced the election of a new 30- member unified command structure called the Supreme Joint Military Command Council, known as the Supreme Military Command (SMC). The Supreme Military Command improves upon previous attempts at armed opposition unification through higher integration of disparate rebel groups and enhanced communication, which suggest that it could prove to be an enduring security institution.
As the SMC develops its institutional capacity, its ability to assert greater authority will likely depend on its transactional legitimacy and its ability to distribute critical resources to rebel-held communities.
The SMC includes all of Syria’s most important opposition field commanders, and its authority is based on the power and influence of these rebel leaders. Its legitimacy is derived from the bottom-up, rather than top-down, and it has no institutional legitimacy apart from the legitimacy of the commanders associated with the council. Thus, the SMC is not structurally cohesive, and its ability to enforce command and control is dependent on the cooperation of each of its members. The incorporation of rebel networks has resulted in chains of command that are not uniform across the five fronts, with each sub-unit retaining their own unique authority structures.
The SMC’s primary function to date has been to serve as a platform for coordination. Regardless of the limits of its current command and control, the SMC has played an important role in syncing rebel operations with several notable successes. It has allowed for greater opportunities for collaboration and coordination among the disparate rebel groups operating in Syria. As the SMC develops its institutional capacity, its ability to assert greater authority will likely depend on its transactional legitimacy and its ability to distribute critical resources to rebel-held communities.
To date, disparate sources of funding have significantly handicapped the rebels’ ability to unite and consolidate authority on a national level. Although private sources of funding will likely continue outside the parameters of the SMC, uniting the support channels of rebels’ main state sponsors will be fundamental to ensuring the legitimacy of the new organization. The ability to provide resources and material support to its sub-units is the determining factor in whether or not the SMC will be able to unite rebel forces under its command and establish a level of command and control.
The SMC has the potential to serve as a check on radicalization and help to assert a moderate authority in Syria. If the SMC can create enough incentives for moderation it will likely be able to marginalize the most radical elements within its structure. To this end, the SMC has recognized the importance of the inclusion of some of the more radical forces, while still drawing a red line at the inclusion of forces that seek the destruction of a Syrian state, such as jihadist groups like Jabhat Nusra.
The impact of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has been felt not just on the battlefield, where the regime now has momentum in many areas, but also in Lebanon where growing sectarian tensions have undermined security and stability.
Ultimately, even if the SMC only serves as a mechanism for greater cooperation and coordination, it is a significant development in that it has united the efforts of rebel commanders across Syria. It is the first attempt at unity that incorporates important commanders from all Syrian provinces and has enough legitimacy on the ground to even begin the process of building a structure capable of providing a national-level chain of command. Syria’s state security apparatus will collapse as the Assad regime finishes its transformation into a militia-like entity. The Supreme Military Command is currently the only organization that could serve to fill the security vacuum left by this transformation. As the Syrian opposition begins to build a transitional government, the SMC could create a framework for rebuilding Syria’s security and governing institutions if properly supported.
The SMC’s ability to act as a basis for a national defense institution will be an important component in filling the power vacuum left by Assad’s fall and will aid in a secure and stable Syria. There remain a number of critical obstacles ahead for the SMC. They include the incorporation of existing command networks, which will have an impact on command and control and resource allocation; mitigating the strength of extremist groups; and managing disparate sources of financing. Overcoming these obstacles will be difficult, especially as the nature of the conflict transforms and the sectarian polarization makes it more challenging to create a strong military institution and professional armed force. Although the SMC must do its part internally to overcome these obstacles, its success will largely depend on greater international support and access to more resources.
Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in Syria is one of the most important factors of the conflict in 2013 and 2014. Since the beginning of 2013, Hezbollah fighters have operated openly and in significant numbers across the border alongside their Syrian and Iraqi counterparts. They have enabled the regime to regain control of rebel-held areas in central Syria and have improved the effectiveness of pro-regime forces. The impact of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has been felt not just on the battlefield, where the regime now has momentum in many areas, but also in Lebanon where growing sectarian tensions have undermined security and stability.
Hezbollah steadily increased involvement in Syria is two-fold. First it heavily focused on the Syrian border areas with Lebanon, as a preemptive war against terrorism. It maintained that Lebanon could not afford to have terrorist havens on its border that would threaten Lebanon’s national security. And since the Lebanese state is unwilling to tackle this threat, Hezbollah had no other choice but to intervene. Second, Hezbollah sought to prevent the fulfillment of the declared Israeli wish of “weakening Iran and Hezbollah itself”.
During the battle of the strategic border city of Qusayr in May last year Hezbollah did suffer losses and some setbacks early on before taking the city, along with the Syrian army.
What is the situation today?
Today Israeli military officials express concern of how Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has enhanced the movement’s combat experience and will actually make it a more formidable foe in any future conflict. Indeed, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is its first experience in infantry battle fighting on foreign turf, compared to the 2006 war against Israel where Hezbollah fighters confronted the Israeli military from their own Lebanese turf.
What more is that the movement has shown a remarkable capability in adapting and improving its military tactics in the battles that have been waged in Syria’s main border areas with Lebanon. During the battle of the strategic border city of Qusayr in May last year Hezbollah did suffer losses and some setbacks early on before taking the city, along with the Syrian army.
In one of the more recent battles in the strategic border region of Qalamoun Hezbollah, along with the Syrian army swiftly seized control of the city of Yabrud, known as the biggest haven of the armed opposition, after months of military planning within just a few days and suffered very few losses in the process. It also goes without saying of course that Hezbollah (and Iran) will have a lot more influence in Syria now then was the case before the eruption of the crisis in Syria. Indeed, instead of breaking Syria off of Iran and Hezbollah, the crisis may very well end up enhancing these ties.
This is why Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah appeared more convinced and confident than ever in his last speech in which he said that our mistake was that “we were late to enter Syria”.