Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Turning points ahead in Syria, but which side will come out on top?

Global Times - Op-Ed

Depending on which side you are on, the Syrian conflict has taken a turn for the better or for the worse following the Syrian Army's retaking of the rebel-held city of Qusayr earlier this month after a two-week-long offensive.

The siege, aided by Lebanon's Hezbollah, marks an upswing for the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, being the first decisive victory over a rebel-held city since the conflict began in the spring of 2011.

The tide appears to be turning in Assad's favor, while the rebels and their supporters have faced a serious setback. Decisive battles are now afoot that will change how the conflict plays out.

Qusayr, in western Syria, was strategically important to the Free Syria Army (FSA) due to its proximity to the Lebanese border and as a conduit for smuggling weapons.

With the fall of Qusayr, and the Syrian Army having retaken control of the Damascus to Aleppo highway, the government armed forces are moving north on the city of Homs and the rebel-controlled areas of the country's second largest city, Aleppo.

If the rebels lose these two cities, their options will be limited to try and hold the Northeast, largely restricted to guerrilla tactics to wear the Syrian Army down and prompt more desertions, as it did before when the uprising spread throughout the country.

As General Salim Idriss, chief of staff of the FSA's Supreme Military Council, put it to the press, "the best way for us to fight this regime is by guerrilla warfare or hit and run tactics without holding on to territory." By Idriss' own admission, the FSA has been weakened and is in serious need of more than light weapons to take on the Syrian Army and air force if it is to succeed.

The anti-Assad camp does not want the rebels to lose their footing. The US has announced it will provide military aid "different in scope and scale to what we have provided before," but other NATO allies have been less forthcoming.

Indeed, the hesitancy about supplying the rebels with heavy weaponry is that they could fall into the wrong hands, primarily radical Islamist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front, which has become infamous for a commander cutting out the heart of a dead Syrian soldier on videotape, as well as for its summary executions.

Furthermore, NATO countries are reluctant to go into Syria to enforce a no-fly zone on behalf of the rebels given the lack of public will for further foreign intervention, and that an air campaign has to factor in that Syria has Russian-supplied surface-to-air missiles.

Nonetheless, a turning point is looming for the anti-Assad factions as to whether to multilaterally heavily arm the rebels and resort to aerial intervention or not.

The US-Russia-sponsored peace talks have been largely scuttled due to the opposition not wanting to turn up as it is not in the best bargaining position.

For the FSA and its backers, a turn in fortunes is needed militarily to be able to push for more concessions at the diplomatic table.

On the international stage, a setback for the rebels in Syria is a blow in the West's campaign against Syria's ally Iran, and by extension to countering Russia and China.

The alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Army is being pushed as the proverbial "smoking gun" to rally support for major international intervention.

The weapons of mass destruction argument worked before when beating the drums for war on Iraq, and when public opinion in the West was not initially amenable to intervention in Libya, and recently in France's intervention in Mali, military actions were nevertheless condoned.

If the Syrian rebels get extensive backing and air cover as a result of the loss of Homs and Aleppo, then a different phase starts in the conflict. As it does if the rebels are not supported and pushed further on the defensive. Regardless, a rumbling conflict will likely rage for years, whether between what remains of the rebels and the Assad regime, or between rival rebel factions.

The violence that continues in Iraq, where more than 1,000 people were killed last month, should remind us how long this could linger.

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