Syria Series – Part 1: Stalemate

The conflict in Syria has destroyed the country.

In this six-part series, Adnan Khan of Revolution Observer analyses the key devel­op­ments as the Syr­ian upris­ing reaches its third year. The series will look at the evolv­ing West­ern strat­egy, the strength of Bashar al-Assad’s mil­i­tary forces, the ISIS and the emerg­ing likely trends. Part one looks at why the rebel groups failed to cap­i­talise on their ini­tial success.

When the upris­ing in Syria began three years ago, the small coun­try at the heart of the Mid­dle East was notably dif­fer­ent. Whilst the other upris­ings in the region lost their ini­tial momen­tum, the peo­ple of Syria stood tall in the face of indiscrimi­nate air attacks and artillery fire.

The ini­tial suc­cess the rebel groups made gave way to a pro­tracted strug­gle against regime forces and the bal­ance of power in the coun­try. Whilst the rebels con­trol the north of the coun­try, the regime con­trols the country’s heart­land from Dam­as­cus to the Mediter­ranean coast. The rebels con­trol more ter­ri­tory than the regime but the regime con­tin­ues to main­tain its grip on key ter­ri­tory.

There are a num­ber of rea­sons why the rebels strug­gled to cap­i­talise upon their ini­tial suc­cess, these can be encap­su­lated into four fun­da­men­tal reasons.

Syrian rebels

Firstly, many rebel groups are small and do not deploy away from their home provinces. Through­out 2013, the exceptions were groups in large rebel coali­tions, such as Suqur al-Sham and the Tawhid Brigades part of the Syr­ian Islamic Lib­er­a­tion Front (SILF) and Ahrar al-Sham and the Al-Haqq brigade in the Syr­ian Islamic Front (SIF).

Syrian rebels
Syrian rebels

These coali­tions have since merged with other groups, but the groups con­tinue to orga­nise and lead attacks involv­ing mul­ti­ple rebel groups under the ban­ner of the Islamic Front. Rebel groups have con­tin­ued to fight the regime under multi­ple umbrel­las rather than uni­fy­ing or merg­ing into a cohe­sive whole, which could then chal­lenge the Assad’s regime. The effect of this has been that results have been local rather than national. The suc­cesses in the north of Syria has been partly due to the regime giv­ing up the region as it strug­gled to deal with a nation­wide insur­gency which was stretch­ing its resources across the country.

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Sec­ondly, the rebel groups lack a national-level com­mand and con­trol sys­tem and have relied on a decen­tral­ised sys­tem which cre­ated mul­ti­ple cen­tres of grav­ity for the oppo­si­tion. This  diver­si­fied the risk of a sys­temic col­lapse by rebel groups when the regime attacked on any given front. This struc­ture under­mined Assad’s fire­power as the army could not fight every rebel group simul­ta­ne­ously across the length and breadth of the coun­try.

With the regime giv­ing up on the north of the coun­try, Assad’s forces fell back to the country’s heart­land from Dam­as­cus to Latakia and have focussed on root­ing out rebels rather than engag­ing in offen­sive oper­a­tions. Launch­ing an oper­a­tion on the heart­land or the seat of the regime will need a sus­tained assault from mul­ti­ple direc­tions by the rebels and this needs coor­di­na­tion and plan­ning as well as the amal­ga­ma­tion of most of the rebel groups. Whilst attempts have been made to shift to a more con­ven­tional struc­ture, rebel infight­ing, which esca­lated in Jan­u­ary 2014 is now dimin­ish­ing the advan­tages gained from the orig­i­nal dis­persed structure.


Thirdly, rebel dis­cord has resulted in rebel infight­ing which is now tak­ing up more resources than fight­ing the regime. The rebel dis­cord has fun­da­men­tally been due to the actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS). Their actions have led some rebel groups to turn against them.

ISIS training camp in Syria
ISIS training camp in Syria

The ISIS has focused its effort on carv­ing out ter­ri­tory for itself in north-eastern Syria, which is not aligned with the opposition’s goal to defeat Assad’s mil­i­tary. These dis­tinct oppo­si­tion cam­paigns are now much more promi­nent and have impacted attempts at lead­ing a coor­di­nated assault on Dam­as­cus, the seat of the regime. Through­out the sum­mer of 2013, ISIS estab­lished areas of con­trol in key ter­rains in north­ern and east­ern Syria along the Turk­ish bor­der, with a signif­i­cant pres­ence in towns such as Atmeh, al-Bab, Azaz, Man­bij, and Jarablus.

ISIS per­se­cu­tion has included the abduc­tion, tor­ture, and killing of Ahrar al-Sham’s mem­ber Dr. Hus­sein al-Suleiman (Abu Rayyan), whose muti­lated body was found on Jan­u­ary 1st 2014. ISIS is com­posed of fight­ers, who should be on the front lines facing-off against the regime, but many remain in rebel held ter­ri­tory run­ning check­points, act­ing as judges and dis­trib­ut­ing resources. Rather than elect peo­ple from amongst the indige­nous pop­u­la­tion, those best expe­ri­enced in fight­ing are gov­ern­ing over peo­ple, and as a result main­tain­ing cohe­sion has been through the gun.

Assad’s external support

Fourthly, the exter­nal sup­port pro­vided to the Assad regime has allowed it to main­tain its posi­tion despite the loss of ter­ri­tory and mass defec­tions from its armed forces. The West led by the US has pro­vided the regime cover through creat­ing a façade of doing some­thing when in real­ity they stood by when Assad launched a chem­i­cal attack on his peo­ple.

Hezbollah fighters are currently in Syria assisting Assad's forces.
Hezbollah fighters are currently in Syria assisting Assad’s forces.

The West has been organ­is­ing con­fer­ences and sum­mits to estab­lish a national coali­tion who will nego­ti­ate a tran­si­tion deal with the regime. Defected offi­cial Brigadier Gen­eral Zaher al-Saket con­firmed the Assad regime was on the verge of col­lapse, this is what led to the inter­ven­tion of Iran and thou­sands of fight­ers from Hezbollah.

Iran propped up the Assad regime by pro­vid­ing weapons and deploy­ing its rev­o­lu­tion­ary guards. The Mus­lim rulers in the region also con­tributed by allow­ing their ter­ri­to­ries to be used for ship­ping arms to the right groups and ensur­ing arms did not end up in the hands of those call­ing for Islamic change.

The rebel groups have man­aged to hold the more capa­ble and equipped regime mil­i­tary forces to a stale­mate. One of the main chal­lenges stand­ing in the way of the rebel groups is the US strat­egy of main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo. The US has however failed in cul­ti­vat­ing a loyal oppo­si­tion in order to achieve this.

The biggest threat now is the grow­ing fric­tion amongst the rebel groups. This trend has seri­ous impli­ca­tions as ISIS has rejected almost all talks and more and more rebel resources will need to be ded­i­cated to them at the expense of the regime.

Part 2 will analyse why the Assad regime has failed to defeat the rebel groups.

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