It’s a mistake to use the “we don’t know who’s who in Syria” argument.
First off it’s not necessary. Large-scale intervention by the US is not going to happen – at least unless Assad or one of his backers cross one of several “red lines”. These red lines are: use of chemical weapons, or mass replacement of aircraft, possibly including strike aircraft and advanced helicopters.
I expect many of the most vocal opponents of US intervention would pause at least if Assad began to use chemical weapons! And in the hypothetical case of Russia replacing Assad’s lost helicopters and jets with more and better aircraft – at this time they would also have to send PILOTS, and that would weaken Putin’s position at the UNSC, and possibly worsen his political problems at home. Putin is facing a real Velvet Revolution at home and some of his strongest supporters are fed up with him.
Second, we do know who’s who in Syria, and the only real problem there is that we can’t predict when the Syrian Army will break down from defections (but a new wave of high-level defections was reported yesterday, including 7 generals).
Last year, as part of the Arab Spring, ordinary Syrians began to demonstrate for more political freedom. No one suggested that they were being paid by the Kingdom, or by the US. It was obvious who they were.
Assad responded by murdering peaceful demonstrators. And even at that, the Syrian demonstrators were SO peaceful and so rational, even while being killed in twos and threes, that the rest of the Arab world marveled.
Eventually, Assad stepped up the killing. It is and has been his ONLY military tactic, and it was ordered by the Russians. Assad began what we now call “punishment bombing” which continues today. Punishment bombing is what the Russians did in Chechenya. It consists in saying: kill their parents and bomb their homes, and they’ll quit fighting.
Following this policy Assad has massacred civilian males of fighting age, and he has fired mortars at his own cities, like Homs, like he was playing Battleship. Level that block, then level the next. The original explanation was that these were “nests of terrorists”. That explanation made some inhuman sense once, but after over a year, it is obvious that the blood-curdling level of civilian deaths (hundreds per day) is Assad’s GOAL, not some sort of collateral damage.
The Syrian Army has not carried out so much as ONE successful military operation in this war. All they have ever done, is to shell the hell out of an area, and then flood it with troops. All they ever accomplish is to kill civilians.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
After months of unresisted murders of demonstrators, two things began to happen. Some demonstrators began to want to shoot back; and many Syrian Army soldiers began to defect.
The resistance of the FSA grew organically out of the demonstrations – to protect them and allow them to take place. And this has worked, and there still are demonstrations, many at night, but they can still be pretty large. (They are on YouTube).
Following this, in late 2011 and in early 2012 we saw more and more “defection videos”. These are impressive. If you don’t like masked jihadi freelance fighters, how do you feel about thousands and thousands of ordinary Syrians and ex-Syrian Army soldiers and officers who stand in front of a camera, show their faces and their ID’s, state their purposes and principles, and then go out to fight for freedom!? That too is on YouTube.
While we’re talking about jihadis, here are some fun facts: there are probably a couple thousand TOPS “foreign fighters” who are loosely collaborating with the FSA. They do not command, and on occasions where they have engaged in improper activities or too much self-promotion, they have been asked to leave.
But on the other hand, Hezbollah and Iran have indeed sent thousands of well-equipped fighters and officers to help Assad. We know about the Iranians because a whole bunch of them got caught (claiming to be tourists), and we also know Iran has provided pilots and technicians. We know about Hezbollah’s actions because they are averaging about three killed per day, the bodies are shipped back to Lebanon, and this is noted. These are important contributions to Assad. It has been said that Iranian officers stand behind Syrian Army soldiers and shoot any who try to retreat or run away.
So anyway, the spontaneously formed FSA brigades, many of them, have by now coalesced into umbrella brigades. The FSA is being led by soldiers, not jihadis. “Rebels” have been guilty of some improper behavior, and there have been some executions. But their discipline is a hell of a lot better than their supply situation.
You have to remember how this all went. In June the FSA were almost a joke. Then they went to Aleppo, and they have not been “rooted out” even by disproportionate and UNRESTRAINED use of force by Assad. Assad is the one who has destroyed cities, and people are blaming the FSA for going there and making Aleppo a target!
The FSA success in Aleppo and their strike against command operations in Damascus (which killed top Syrian officials) created panic on the regime side. But the only response they had was to add the destructive power of their air force to the constant mortar shells. The FSA adapted easily to being strafed, and air-launched rockets are not that destructive in a city. So Assad now rigs up his own bunker-busters, “barrel bombs” that are dropped from helicopters on civilian targets.
That freed up the jets to strafe lines of civilians queueing for bread.
Move on into July and August, and what you have are continuous one-two punches against Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs by Assad – shell, shell, shell and send in troops. The MSM has a fetish about “territory” when reporting on a conflict, but over time people realized it wasn’t like that. The FSA is killing many more Syrian Army soldiers than it is losing. The Syrian Army has lost nearly as many soldiers killed as there have been civilians killed – over 15,000.
In September, though, the story has been the ability of the FSA to kill enough tanks, planes and helicopters to make it possible to say that Assad is going to run out of these things in less than a year – unless he is massively resupplied. It’s noteworthy that the tank kills were the product of brilliant setpiece strategy – clever ways of getting the tanks to roll into the open where they could be3 hit with RPGs.
But the jet plane kills and helicopter kills – many verified via YouTube videos – are the result of magic. The FSA gunners are praying these bullets into the helicopters, or something. They may be getting a few shoulder-fired rockets now, but they haven’t had many at all. Of course, when the FSA realized that Assad wanted them to try to do in Damascus what they had done in Aleppo, they changed their tactics. Catching too many soldiers close to the cities, they rolled out across side roads and attacked lightly guarded military bases and AIR BASES, destroying many aircraft on the ground in several well-attested instances (on YouTube).
They haven’t had much regular small-arms ammo either. When the FSA do a “tactical retreat” in Salah-al-din or some other place, it’s almost always because they are just out of bullets. Mark this: when military history goes back over this successful revolution, the Free Syrian Army will stand as one of the best fighting forces, POUND FOR POUND, in history, and most of them aren’t even twenty years old. Their discipline, and the wisdom of their commanders, is a product of their personal and religious closeness. People here will surely scoff at adolescent soldiers who murmur the name of God continuously…but I bet the Syrian Army doesn’t do it, and ditto for the Lebanese. (As for the Russians, they pray to Mammon.)
The US policy is difficult but defensible (the best foreign policy is always difficult): US inaction guarantees Russian inaction. The key element appears to be, that as long as the US either does not intervene or keeps its intervention (sending some arms) secret – the Russians appear to have realized that their “red line” is replacement aircraft. There are several red lines. If the Russians send a new air force to Assad, it’s cause for a US response of some kind, because the Syrians won’t have the PILOTS. The Russians would have to send pilots with the planes, and that’s a bridge too far.
Now you have Turkey getting into the crisis. This is dangerous, and I think Obama was dealing with this instead of getting his rest for the debate because we are looking at the possibility of major escalation, with consequent OIL SHOCKS. If Turkey goes into Syria, the Russians could say, there, that’s America and NATO going in – and cast off all restraint themselves.
What is the problem with the Russians? Russia is not a geostrategic competitor any more. It’s just a MAFIA STATE that is being run by a cabal of people who want to make billions of dollars. The Russians make a lot of money from running drugs, arms and human beings (trafficking) through Syria. Assad has been just as incredibly venal as Mubarak or Gaddafi, although his personal fortune amounts only to about 60 billion.
There is nothing the West has that can compensate Putin for the loss of his Syrian profit. There is no way to give him Georgia, nothing like that. The Russians are just watching things go from bad to worse.
The most fear-worthy hypothesis is this: at the end of the day, rather than lose their little warm-water port in Tartous and their multibillion dollar drug business, and get nothing back for it, the Russians would just as soon blow up Saudi Arabia and make their own oil worth more. I’m not taking that any further, but I’m not laughing at all. Taking any appreciable percentage of world oil offline would cause the Chinese to freak out.
At the end of the day it may be that more than the freedom of a few million Arabs is at stake, and being championed by a few graybearded defectors and a whole lot of Syrian young people who like Chuck Norris movies.