Syria: Desperate Moves


May 13, 2013: The fighting grinds on, with Iran supplying more of its own troops, along with Hezbollah militiamen from Lebanon to push the rebels back in some areas, while abandoning large areas of the country to rebel control. The government is concentrating its forces to defend Damascus, the coastal area, and roads between the two. Total deaths for two years of fighting are now over 82,000, with about 60 percent of them civilians. Most of the rest are government troops and pro-government militias (Alawites, Christians). A fifth of the population has been driven from their homes and over a million people have fled the country. The refugee situation is expected to get worse. The economy has been disrupted in most of the country, making it difficult to get essential supplies (like food) to millions of people. Everyone is having supply problems but it’s worse for the rebels who do not (like the government) have bases with warehouses full of ammo and weapons. The ammo shortage has been a growing constraint on rebel activity.

The Arab League has not been able to muster enough unity to call for international (Western) intervention in Syria. The Arab League did so two years ago for Libya, and many Arabs considered it shameful that the Arab world could not handle the military intervention itself. Despite trillions of dollars in oil income and hundreds of millions of Arabs demanding something be done, the Arab League had to call on outsiders to save Libya from degenerating into a drawn out bloodbath. That is what is happening in Syria and many Arabs refuse to accept responsibility and just blame the West and Israel for the mess in Syria. Given that toxic atmosphere, Western nations, including NATO member Turkey, are reluctant to do what the Arabs want done but will not admit they want it done and cannot do it themselves. What a mess.

The U.S. has said it would intervene if Syria used chemical weapons. The chemical weapons appear to have been used but the U.S. is trying to back out of its commitment because no other NATO nation is willing to go in simply because some chemical weapons have been used. So the U.S. says it is still investigating, while it desperately (and quietly) tries to get the Arab states to call for intervention and NATO states to agree to respond to such a call.

In eastern Syria local tribes have taken control of oil fields and are smuggling the oil into Turkey for the benefit of the tribes, not the rebels. This is the sort of factionalism and selfishness that has weakened the ability of the rebels to decisively defeat the outnumbered government forces.

Although the rebels are more numerous and aggressive, they are increasingly divided by religious and political differences and that leads to less cooperation and sometimes violence. The government has two advantages, the main one being that it is united in its fight for survival. But the government also has the financial and military support of Iran and its Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. While Hezbollah is a Lebanese organization, it was founded with Iranian help and sustained by billions in Iranian cash and weapons over the last three decades. Without Iran, Hezbollah would get torn apart by the Lebanese majority it has long terrorized. Iran, despite losing half its oil income in the past year, due to stronger sanctions and international pressure to halt its nuclear weapons program, is determined to maintain its control (via the Assad family) of Syria. While the majority of Syrians oppose the Assads, the opposition is fragmented and Iran has worked with the Assads to exploit those divisions and keep the rebels too weak to take control of the entire country. Iran is spending billions to do this and flying more and more military specialists and combat troops into Syria.

While the many rebel factions understand what Iran and the Assads are doing, they are finding unity elusive. The big divide is between the Islamic radical factions, the Kurds and the nationalists. The Islamic radicals are a minority but are the most fanatical fighters. There are several problems with the radicals. For one thing, about half of them are foreigners. While some foreign help is appreciated, the Islamic radical groups sometimes act like an invading army to civilians. That’s because of the second problem; the radicals want to replace the Assad’s secular dictatorship with a religious dictatorship. This does not go down well with the Kurds (15 percent of the population) and the nationalist rebels (mostly the Sunnis who represent 70 percent of the population). The Sunnis are fragmented into many tribal and political factions and all agree on having some kind of democracy (or “arrangement”) where each could do their own thing and not be dominated by one faction (as the Assads have done for over three decades).

Hezbollah has admitted that its forces were fighting in Syria, mainly to secure border areas and roads to Damascus (its supply line to Iran). Hezbollah leaders also boasted that they could continue to get new weapons from Iran via Syria and that these would be used against Israel, in part to avenge recent Israeli air attacks in Syria. Some of the Syrian rebels believe that the Israeli air raids were actually an effort by Israel to prevent Syrian soldiers from deserting to the rebels. This sort of thinking is the result of decades of Arab propaganda accusing Israel of being responsible for just about everything that goes wrong in the Arab world. Such long-held delusions are hard to shake. Some rebel factions see the Israeli air raids as a good thing for them but out of fear of being branded “Israeli puppets” keep quiet about it.

May 11, 2013: Two car bombs went off in a Turkish town near the Syrian border. The attack killed at least 46, wounded over a hundred, and did a lot of property damage. The Turks quickly figured out who was responsible, it was Turkish communist radical group that had long been supported by the Assads and Iran. The Turks accused the Assads of trying to use such terrorist violence to turn the Turkish people against the growing number of Syrian refugees and the rebels. The Turks also see this as an Assad ploy to get the Turkish military to move into Syria, which the Assads believe they could use to gain broad popular support from Arabs because of the bad memories of centuries of harsh Turkish rule in Arab countries (until the Turk Empire was dissolved in 1918). This popular revulsion, so the logic goes, would force Arab governments to stop supporting the rebels. It’s unclear if it would all work out this way but the Assads are desperate and that makes desperate moves seem like a reasonable risk. The Assads denied any connection with the bombing.

May 8, 2013: The Internet in Syria went dead for nearly 24 hours. The cause was apparently a technical problem (or a deliberate act) at the handful of links to the outside world that carry all Internet traffic into and out of Syria.

May 7, 2013: Israel believes that Russia plans to deliver to Syria four S-300 units, each with a long-range search radar to detect targets and six launcher vehicles (each carrying four or two missiles). This deal would involve delivering 144 missiles, as well as technical assistance. The S-300 is similar to the American Patriot system and more difficult for Israeli electronic countermeasures to deal with. Currently the Israelis are able to blind Syrian air defenses with electronic countermeasures and protect their warplanes operating over Syria. With the S-300s, there might be Israeli aircraft losses. Israeli officials are trying to convince the Russians to not send the S-300s (which Syria had ordered before the rebellion began, which, to the Russians, means delivering them is not a violation of the UN arms sanctions on Syria).




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