Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Syrian Forces" vs. "Rebels" : A dangerous simplification of a complex problem.

I believe the west is marching in a dangerous direction on Syria. A dangerously simplistic construction of an 'Assad vs. Rebels' scenario has been created and the public calls for the U.S and allies to 'do something' is being heard.  But, what can be done and what the results of that action will be are far from clear cut.  

"Anyone watching the Syrian Civil War right now through the eyes of Western media is like some  guy who figures he knows what WWII was all about because he just watched Inglourious Basterds." (Wartard)

President Obama has long set the United States on the road toward intervention in Syria by setting the use of chemical weapons as a 'red line' or a 'game changer'.  When news of chemical attacks first began to surface, many analysts cautioned that it was still unclear who was using doing the attacking.  On BBC and Deutsche Welle, reports seemed to indicate that at least some of the chemical attacks were being carried out by some of the rebel groups.  

Of course we don't know exactly what the Obama administration or any other government knows, but it seems to me that there is at least some reason to be suspicious regarding who is doing the chemical attacks.  Part of it is just through logical reasoning.  Some of the reported attacks occurred after the U.S said that chemical attacks would draw them into the conflict and some of the attacks were done in civilian areas which would serve no purpose for the Ba'ath party, President Bashar al-Assad or the Syrian armed forces.  But, evidence of chemical attacks would strengthen the calls for international intervention on behalf of the rebels.  

Of course chemical attacks might be carried out by a desperate Syrian military hoping to turn the tides of a losing war, but there is no evidence that they are losing.  In fact, over the last six months or so it has seemed that Assad's forces have been clearly winning the conflict.  Perhaps that is party because of the alleged use of chemical weapons, but considering that they have proper military equipment and air superiority, it just doesn't seem to me that they would really need to resort to the use of chemical weapons which would attract unwanted attention.  

(for a really good image of current battle zones and past battles, click here)

While I haven't seen any clear evidence that some of the rebel groups are using chemical weapons, they certainly have more incentive to do so than the Syrian government has.  I'm aware that several reports from media people have surfaced stating that the government has carried out chemical attacks, but I just don't think we are getting all the information here.  Considering that some of the rebel groups, like Jabhat al-Nusra, the largest of the jihadist groups are believed to have launched some 50 suicide attacks in Syria since 2011 and are classified as terrorist organizations by many countries (including Syria, Canada, the U.S, Turkey and Britain), I wouldn't put chemical attacks on civilians past them.  Would they intentionally draw the U.S in to the conflict for their own purposes?  If they are desperate enough, they might.  

 If that is the case, it would appear that their mission has been successful.  In the past 24 hours, the Obama administration has stated that the U.S will begin arming the rebels.  Though they might be specifically providing arms to counter Syrian heavy equipment and air power, this could very well turn the tides of the war.  Also, if it doesn't appear to be working, my guess would be that the U.S and other potential allies could take even more direct action.  John McCain has been calling on the U.S Air force to begin limited and targeted air strikes.  He may get his wish very soon.

It's not that I think Assad is a good leader or that he shouldn't be removed nor is it that I think it would be beyond him to use chemical attacks in addition to the massacres which he has already ordered.  But, I remain extremely skeptical regarding the wisdom of the U.S, Britain, Canada or anyone else from getting involved.  

Consider who the rebels are:  I mentioned Jabhat al-Nusra but there are also a host of other radical foreign fighters sponsored by all sorts of organizations and militias which are not exactly looking for a pluralist and free society.  But, apart from them the main combatants are the Syrian Free Army and the Syrian Liberation Front.  The former has been estimated to have about 50,000 fighters including lots of former Syrian forces personnel, and the later has been estimated to have about 40,000 soldiers.  Additionally, the Syrian Islamic front has about 14,000 fighters and then the Kurdish Democratic Union may have as many as 10,000 fighters.  That's all in addition to another half dozen groups with thousands of fighters each.  

Syria Kurds Popular Protection Units (YPG) are fighting for an independent Kurdish state
So, if the Ba'ath party falls from power, who is going to take over?  Many of these groups are ethnic and regional in their make-up and power base and don't agree with the other groups on anything other than bringing down the Syrian government. But, what is going to happen the day after Assad falls?  How long will the west need to be involved and won't some of these jihadist groups then turn their weapons on pro-western groups, Kurdish groups, Christian groups (about 15% of the country is made up of various Christian ethnic groups) and other Islamic groups.  How well are the Sunni's and the Alawite's (Assad's own ethnic group) going to get along after the fall?

As Hannah Batatu observed in 1981,“Working for cohesion at the present juncture is the strong fear among Alawis of every rank that dire consequences for all Alawis could ensue from an overthrow of the existing regime.”  Could they be the next victims of ethnic cleansing once they are no longer protected by a powerful government?  

Now, on the government side, forget about the thousands of Hezbollah allies and the Iranian security "advisers", and let's just look at the security forces themselves.  Even within the so called "government forces" there are so many groups with only marginally overlapping interests.  Every province in Syria maintains its own security establishment which fall under the overall, but not direct, command of the Syrian government.  Many of these provinces are different ethnic groups in this widely diverse country.  Many of them operate somewhat independently from the central government and are widely popular in their own territory.  Some of them have already defected to the rebel side, but even those on the government side are necessarily going to all go the same way if the Assad regime falls.  

The so called Shabiha, or regional paramilitary groups may be pro-regime, but they have their own command structures and have been accused for years of terrorizing local residents in their own territory almost entirely free of central oversight.  

Even within the formal Syrian army, the conscripts are primarily Sunni, but the career soldiers and some 90% of the officers are Alawite.  If the command structure breaks down following a fall in the Ba'ath party, can we really expect this arrangement to hold or will it fall apart?  

At any rate, the situation is not clear cut.  The dichotomous media construction of an Assad vs. Rebel scenario is simplistic.  I get that they are trying to make the situation comprehensible, but the thought that we can simply "arm the rebels" cause the "Assad government" to fall and then stop all the violence and turmoil is a fantasy.
I have no solutions, but I highly doubt that western involvement is going to solve anything.  

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