TTG’s Analysis of the Syrian Civil War

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On 3 November, after the recapture of Safira by Syrian forces, I wrote that, “Things aren’t going too well for the Syrian rebels. Not only that, the Syrian army is evolving into something far more dangerous to its enemies than the conventional 60s era Soviet model army it once was. It is also gaining experience in joint operations with Hizbollah, the Quds Force and Iraqi Shia volunteers.” At that time I felt that victory for the Assad regime was all but a sure bet. Now Jeff White, writing for WINEP, comes to that conclusion as well, but with noticeably less certainty and enthusiasm than I.

I feel the primary reason for the Assad regime’s rosier prognosis is the transformation that has occurred in the Syrian armed forces over the last two years. The results of this transformation can be seen in a Press TV documentary on the Battle of Al Qusayr. Watch the video and pay attention to the narration. Yes, it’s a propaganda piece, but the information is there to see and hear. See how the Syrian army planned for the methodical encirclement and reduction of the rebel forces. They successfully penetrated the rebels communications system and determined their locations before seizing the key terrain piece that dominated the entire area. They quickly adjusted their plans to take advantage of developing situations. They made effective use of combined arms tactics and supporting fires. They conserved their forces for future operations. And they worked effectively with Hizbollah infantry and local militias. That’s coalition warfare. That's an adaptive, modern military force with effective combat leadership at all levels. 

The only game changer mentioned by Jeff White that I feel could have brought the regime down was a direct, full blown R2P intervention by the US that would have destroyed Syrian air assets, command and control mechanisms and probably major combat forces. That kind of attack would not have gotten rid of Assad, but it would have made the transformation of the Syrian armed forces moot. In exchange for giving up his chemical weapons (more of a strategic deterrent force than a tactical asset), Assad conserved his developing forces and freedom of action. According to Rick Francona, who I knew for years at DIA, Syria may get previously contracted Yak-130 and MiG-29M2 aircraft from Russia in exchange for agreeing to give up the chemical weapons. This would provide a significant upgrade to Syrian air to ground capability to complement their developing ground forces. They are in it for the long haul.

A month ago I predicted that there will be much greater interoperability and trust between Hizbollah and Syrian forces along Israel's northern border in the future. I see Syrian forces, or at least a sizable portion of those forces, gaining the capability and the intent to defend Syria in a similar way that Hizbollah defends Lebanon. It won't be an offensive force capable of overrunning Israel, but it will make Israeli military action against Syria more difficult and costly. In effect, Israel will have a second Hizbollah on its border. Freeing the Golan Heights could become a rallying cry for this new force further complicating Israeli calculations.

 TTG 

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32 Responses to TTG’s Analysis of the Syrian Civil War

  1. Tyler says:

    TTG,
    Read today that Israel is preparing for a “swift, sharp war” against HA.
    “Those who G-d wishes to punish, He first makes mad” apparently.

  2. Bandolero says:

    Though it’s right the the Syrian army and it’s allies got more experience I think TTGs analysis misses the most crucial point why the Syrian army is on the way of winning the war: popular support switched from rebels in the direction of the army.
    In 2011/2012 the Syrian army was also able to clear areas of insurgents, but when the battle was over and the army went to the next battle, many areas switched quickly back to rebels, like in Daraya and Duma in Reef Dimashq, Tremse in Reef Hama, Salaheddin and Saif Al-Duhlah in Aleppo for example.
    In 2013 that trend has been reversed. Now the areas the Syrian army clears from insurgents usually stay cleared, and whereever insurgents takeover an area, that is now quickly reversed. So on balance, the Syrian army has won a lot in 2013. Of course, there can be many factors why that is so, like better availability of auxiliary forces, better organisation and logistics, better preselection of areas to be cleared (don’t clear it if you can’t hold it) and so on, but the crucial factor seems to me that more and more people in Syria prefer to have the army instead of insurgents controlling their villages and neighborhoods and that’s why they cooperate with the army and the army is able to hold cleared areas.

  3. Assuming Assad wins what are short and long term implications?

  4. TTG,
    I have long suspected that the most fundamental security problem for Israel had to do with the difficulty of providing cogent reasons why the educated and technologically sophisticated elites should stay there, particularly given the ease with which they can migrate to the U.S.
    In this context, the inevitable steady progressive increase in the range and accuracy of missiles available to Hizbollah may indeed represent a genuine ‘existential threat’. Capabilities adequate to provide ‘deterrence’ may not be adequate to provide ‘reassurance’, to use Cold War jargon.
    If this is so, is this threat likely to be made significantly greater by the emergence of an increasingly capable and Syrian Army, closely co-operating with Hizbollah?

  5. confusedponderer says:

    “In 2011/2012 the Syrian army was also able to clear areas of insurgents, but when the battle was over and the army went to the next battle, many areas switched quickly back to rebels … In 2013 that trend has been reversed. ”
    That correlates with the Islamists taking over the dominant role among opposition fighters.
    If they are the alternative, many a Syrians apparently feels that Assad is better.
    This also suggests to me that the Takfiri style of governance is unattractive bordering to self-defeating.

  6. Fred says:

    The people in the areas you mention discovered that all those foreign jihadis were not fighting for their vision of Syria but their own vision – which they didn’t want to become victims of.

  7. Fred says:

    TTG,
    Thanks for the analysis. It looks like the foreign policies of both the US and of Israel are not working out well for their own national interests, though perhaps ours is changing for the better.

  8. robt willmann says:

    HA?

  9. D.H.–Question? Are Israeli immigration and emmigration statistics available anywhere in open source?

  10. Fred says:

    David,
    I must disagree. The most fundamental security problem for Israel is the ethnic cleansing they themselves are perpetrating in their country. Here’s another example:
    http://english.al-akhbar.com/content/jerusalem-residents-omitted-history
    The enactment of the concepts of collective guilt, collective punishment and a betrayal of the same values that gave their people strength throughout their long diaspora are the true threats faced by Israel. All the weaponry in the world won’t defend against a rot in one’s soul.

  11. Bandolero says:

    Fred
    That’s much too simplistic. There are many different reasons and even more narratives why more and more people in Syria prefer the army against the insurgents. There are taking place quite complex social processes.
    That the reason behind shifting allegiances to the army is that many people realized after they got knowing the insurgents that propaganda portraying insurgents as nice was untrue and that the insurgents in reality were always worse than the army is just one such narrative.
    Another narrative is that life in government controlled areas is just better because the insurgents lack of needed finances to effectively run areas they control or because the government willfully uses it’s heavy weapons to make life in insurgent areas miserable.
    Another narrative is that the conflict radicalized the insurgents so that they became more extremist due to the ongoing conflict.
    Another narrative is that the Syrian cleverly adpoted a very concilitaroy stance abstaining from revenge allowing insurgents to surrender and go back into normal life.
    Another narrative is that the army during the conflict managed to shape it’s enemies to become the extremists they are now.
    Another narrative is that the insurgency lacked a common idea and that’s why there are so many divisions between insurgents which made them endlessly fighting each other.
    Just take any mix of reasons and narratives you like, but the result is that people’s allegiances significantly shifted in favor of the Syrian army, and that’s a very important factor in the war.

  12. Bandolero says:

    confusedponderer
    The argument of why there exists a correlation between he jihadi take over and insurgents losing popular support can also be made the other way round.
    Besides the obvious that the “Takfiri style of governance” is not totally popular in Syria, one may also make a point saying that insurgents adapted the autarian “Takfiri style of governance” and ideology because the insurgency was losing popular support.
    I think the factors why the insurgency lost popular support are really many and complex and lot’s of interdependencies exist between them.
    I find the most compelling argument in that regard was brought forward by Assad a year ago or so when he said that the insurgency lacked an idea and therefore it was not a revolution.
    That may set in motion a whole chain like no common idea means no common leader means no unity means lot’s of banditry, power struggles and infighting means extremists bound together by ideology win that and become dominant means the insurgency loses popular support means the insurgency may be doomed from it’s own very basic flaw that it lacks a common idea.

  13. Norbert M Salamon says:

    Wiki has a long article: Emigration from Israel has some immigration data also.

  14. Kieran says:

    Thanks TTG for the intelligent analysis, although I am skeptical of your conclusions. The short of it is that I think the conflict remains essentially stalemated, with years of bloodshed in store, the final outcome in the balance, rather than the regime (or the rebels) being on the fast track to victory.
    The evidence (at heart, the three signal -but not decisive- successes of the Qusair, Aleppo, and Qalamoun offensives), one reading of which is that the SAA is transforming into a stronger and tougher fighting force, is also compatible with a different conclusion: that the SAA is an increasingly hollowed-out force that can only achieve such limited successes with the benefit of a Hezbollah spearhead, Iraqi militia cannon fodder, and Iranian advice/support. Doubtless there are some praetorian formations, which as you note have upped their game in cooperation and coordination with their allies, learned lessons, and chopped away dead wood. But their numbers are limited, while the bulk of the SAA is strewn out in base battles and sieges the length and breadth of Syria. This SAA – the real SAA, not the Press TV SAA – is heavily fatigued in men and equipment. Their qualitative advantage is draining away, trading in BMPs for pick up trucks as the rebels pick up tanks and artillery. This may be a matter of logistics, even more than combat losses. The main problem, however, is quantitative. The prospect of fighting and dying for Assad simply does not look as attractive, on average, to a young Christian man from Maalula (as opposed to packing one’s bags or keeping one’s head down) as fighting and dying against Assad looks to a young Sunni man in a refugee camp or bombed-out neighborhood. Yes, there are Sunnis fighting on Assad’s side. If these represented a large fraction of the Sunni population, however, there would be no need to bring in foreign Shiite militiamen to plug the gaps, or for the Alawite community to bear such a heavy burden of sacrifice.
    The rebels, meanwhile, have zero prospect of dealing a death blow to the regime anytime soon. The regime can – painstakingly, with their better units and their foreign helpers – fight them out of any critical node they occupy. The regime can deny them a livable and governable homefront with strategic bombing. The rebels deny themselves a coherent basis for national political and military organization with their factionalism, sectarianism, and allegiance to competing patrons. However, they are resilient – they have manpower, they believe in their cause, and their fractiousness is an asset insofar as there is no Robert E. Lee to tell everyone to go home – no matter how badly they fare on the battlefield, their war will go on, and on, and on. The regime’s own ability to govern is being continuously degraded – economically, they are already on life support. The regime and the rebels are “as two spent swimmers that do cling together and choke their art”.
    There does not seem to be much ground upon which a political solution could stand – even if the distinguished international patrons of the rebels and the regime were to reach a settlement, there is no sign that the rebels or the regime themselves are willing to entertain anything short of maximal objectives. The battlefield suggests no clear basis for partitioning the country. A major escalation in involvement by one of the foreign parties to the conflict could tip the balance – or could simply provoke counter-escalation and an intensification of the killing. Otherwise, December 2014 could look much like December 2013 – except worse, for everyone living it.

  15. robt willmann says:

    Here is a short, general mention of the emigration issue, with the number of Israeli expats as being between 600,000 and 1 million–
    http://mondoweiss.net/2013/10/influential-israeli-diaspora.html

  16. Fred says:

    Bandolero,
    “Another narrative is that the Syrian cleverly adpoted a very concilitaroy stance abstaining from revenge allowing insurgents to surrender and go back into normal life.” That is not a narrative but a strategic decision by the Assad government.
    “Another narrative is that the insurgency lacked a common idea …” Yes, the Syrians who were in rebellion against the central government had a common idea, the foreigners fighting the Syrian government have a completely different one.
    The Syrian Army made the insurgencies backers into extremists? That is simply not true. I think your biases are clouding you judgement.

  17. VietnamVet says:

    TTG
    Thanks for your expertise. I have none in the Middle East. But, war is like all chaotic systems; it keeps going until it suddenly collapses.
    The Assad regime has new life. However, with Saudi and Qatar financial support, Israel stirring the pot, money to be made selling arms to combatants, and fighting true believers; the Alawites and Shiites sects are nowhere near putting down the Sunni rebellion in Syria or Iraq.
    The enveloping chaos in the Middle East hopefully will propel an agreement between Western governments and Iran that will side the world against the ongoing Wahhabi Jihad and war for profit. Once the money is cut off perhaps a political settlement could be reached that would establish governments and secure borders for each of the Middle East ethnic groups.

  18. Tyler says:

    Hizballah Alliance.

  19. Bandolero says:

    Fred
    You seem to have misunderstood me. My point was not that this or that narrative why the popularity has grown is correct or wrong, my point was that there exists many such narratives, many factors influenced that outcome, many spins are set aound this, but the reality is quite complex.
    The narratives I listed as examples I heard all from Syria or from expats usually each of them claiming only his narrative is 100% right and all others are dead wrong. By listing the examples I didn’t voice an oppinion on these narratives. My opinion on what I think is the most credible narrative I voiced in a comment below: I think the insurgency lacks a common idea, idea in a positive sense of what should become out of Syria after the insurgency would succeed, and that’s why it lost popular support. To put the same argument in another way, some insurgents want a Sunni califate based only on sharia while others want a western oriented liberal democracy, and while there are many flavors between this, it’s still an unbridgable contradiction leading to endless infighting among insurgents and thereby loss of popular support.
    I didn’t list some of the more common and primitive narratives like “god punished insurgents working with infidels by withdrawing popular support from them” or “as soon as insurgents adopted sharia and islamic themes they lost popular support because the people of Syria don’t support sharia.” I understand well that those contradict each other, what just adds to the complexity of the topic.
    The narrative that the Syrian army shaped the insurgents into becoming jihadi extremists is peddled by expats like Rime Allaf – eg she just peddled it in the NYT – and her hard argument behind the allegation is that the Syrian army has never bombed the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa and some other places while the army destroyed many headquarters of the FSA. Another SNC/FSA guy I heard recently complaining that the Syrian army doesn’t bomb ISIS as much as it does bomb the FSA and that’s the reason why the FSA is losing against ISIS. I adviced him to petition Bashar Al-Assad that he orders the Syrian Army to fight ISIS instead of the FSA so that the FSA would be able to more efficiantly wage war against the Syrian army.
    I hope that explains that I don’t think this narrative has a lot of credit but of course the Syrian army will not help FSA/IF insurgents to deal with problems like Al Qaeda as long as FSA/IF insurgents wage war against the Syrian army. I think the Syrian army knows, that when the FSA/IF insugents lose their turf war against Al Qaeda than the insurgency will lose most of it’s national and international backing and the Syrian army will win the war.

  20. FB Ali says:

    I am inclined to think that the regime cannot defeat the jihadis until their external financial and manpower support is cut off. In this Turkey can play a major role, but so far has shown no signs of doing so.
    Another possible end to the war would be if the West realises that the jihadis pose a significant long-term threat to them and their interests, and decide to act against them, even if it be only to choke off their support.
    Failing any of this, if exhaustion is going to decide the issue then the jihadis are better placed to last out the regime. If things started moving in that direction then the regime may well retreat into an Alawite stronghold and hold that against the anarchy outside.

  21. robt willmann says:

    FB Ali,
    I have been thinking about the Syrian conflict in a similar way, in that the U.S. seems to be continuing to help those opposing the Assad regime with violence. I have not seen any reports that the CIA and U.S. military are no longer training fighters in Jordan to go into Syria, or no longer helping with “communications”, or no longer giving tactical advice, and so forth. Thus, the U.S. is deliberately prolonging the violence. Perhaps it is to try to wear down the Syrian government over the long haul, but this is contradicted by the apparent gains being made by the Syrian military, Hizbullah, and other helpers (Russia?). Also, the Obama administration has not publicly backed down from its previous position that Assad must go.
    All that is being accomplished is creating more refugees, causing more dead and wounded, and destroying more property, without any sensible goal being declared to the public.

  22. Fred,
    I overstated my case, and on reflection think you may very well be right.
    However, the demographic issues remain of critical importance, even if it was foolish of me to describe them as the ‘most fundamental security problem’ for Israel.
    Also, I think there is a great deal of ‘rot’ in most of our souls, in the U.K. and U.S. as well as in Israel.

  23. Babak Makkinejad says:

    It is more than 20% …

  24. Castellio says:

    I have, unfortunately, no special information to give, but my question is this: What is the understanding/deal between Turkey and the US in the on-going support of the Syrian “rebels”?
    Turkey is following what looks like a failed course. Why?

  25. Fred says:

    It seems change may be afoot in Turkey:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25475859

  26. Fred says:

    David,
    Yes, there is a great deal of ‘rot’ in America’s soul. Yet hope does spring eternal, especially this time of year.

  27. confusedponderer says:

    “That may set in motion a whole chain like no common idea means no common leader means no unity means lot’s of banditry, power struggles and infighting means extremists bound together by ideology win that and become dominant means the insurgency loses popular support means the insurgency may be doomed from it’s own very basic flaw that it lacks a common idea.”
    What do you expect?
    I’d be surprised if the Al Qaeda elements in the opposition ever had genuine widespread popular support.
    To a Tafkiri dissent with their views proves that you are a heathen and can be justifiably killed. For that you don’t even need to be secular, Alawi, Christian or Shia – it suffices that you’re not their kind of Muslim.
    That haughty, radical attitude doesn’t lend itself to forming coalitions, let alone the live and let live attitude required to make coalitions work, or to form a common narrative.
    The good news: It is also unlikely to inspire many. That is an insurmountable problem and Al Qaeda’s main weakness.
    Left to their own devices the movement likely will peter out because people will become sick of their carnage rather sooner than later. They aren’t able administrators either, though the civic action side of their activities obviously does some good.
    I imagine that what they do, the carnage and zealotry aside, must otherwise be pretty similar to what Green Berets were tasked with when organising resistance movements behind enemy lines.
    What perpetuates them probably is the influx of money to them from the Gulf, and in Syria, of supplies from Turkey. Give there is a strong political will, something can be done about either.

  28. Bill Smith says:

    The war is the rebels to lose. Assad is slowly losing. He has manpower problem.
    It is true Assad can muster forces to take just about any place he wants but then looses ground in all the places he took those forces from.

  29. Fred says:

    I think it is important to ask just what those liberals owe allegiance to. The same should be asked of America’s.

  30. turcopolier says:

    Bill Smith
    you seem to think that rebel manpower is not also limited. I presume that TTG will respond to your comment. pl

  31. Bandolero says:

    confusedponderer
    So let me surprise you. Al Qaeda has some level of genuine popular support in parts of Syria. It has even been in the media:
    Al Qaeda’s Teenage Fan Club – Syria’s Extremist Revolution Is a Youth-Culture Phenomenon
    http://www.vice.com/read/al-qaedas-teenage-fan-club-0000108-v20n10?Contentpage=-1
    And another surprise: Compared to the secular groups Al Qaeda seems to have quite good skills managing the cities and assets under their control in Syria.
    The city Raqqa, for example, which is managed by Al Qaeda, has electricity from the Al Qaeda controlled Euphrat dam nearby. Al Qaeda runs all over the northern and eastern Syria police forces, schools, even public transport. Al Qaeda guys also operate the gas facilities at Shaddadi, Syria’s largest, and some of the larger oil wells in the east, too.
    See media reports for yourself:
    Al Qaeda police car in front of Al Qaeda police station in Al Dana:
    https://twitter.com/jenanmoussa/status/385122995238629376
    Al Qaeda-led rebels (Nusra) seized the Tishreen dam (Syria’s largest):
    http://www.news.com.au/world/rebels-seize-syrias-largest-dam-watchdog/story-fndir2ev-1226575782535
    Nusra Front militia’s control of Syrian city Shaddadi gives it economic clout:
    http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/09/11/201816/nusra-front-militias-control-of.html
    Jabhat al-Nusra consolidates position as scramble for control of wells accelerates
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/19/eu-syria-oil-jihadist-al-qaida
    Don’t ask me why the Al Qaeda guys do – compared to the secular rebel councils – so well managing the areas and assets they hold in Syria. I don’t know. But by all accounts I heard the Al Qaeda guys in Syria do manage areas under their control surprisingly well.
    Regarding finances: running strategic assets like the Euphrat dam, oil wells, gas facilities and strategic towns near border crossings to get a cut on goods crossing the borders seems to me to be a large factor in Al Qaeda’s funding in Syria.

  32. The Twisted Genius says:

    Bill Smith,
    If the war is the rebels to lose, they are doing a bang up job of doing just that. I sensed their downfall when they first sought to seize Aleppo and engage the SAA head on. That strategy was/is a fatal mistake. An insurgency’s first priority is to stay alive and conserve its strength. Set piece battles should be the final stage. Assad is doing a better job of preserving his limited forces and concentrating on attriting the enemy. The SAA is defending and seizing only key areas and lines of communication rather than trying to hold all territory.
    The Press Tv documentary mentions how the SAA was able to pull its units out of combat after a week or two of combat for rest and refitting. That does not indicate an army on the verge of collapse. The rebels could not do that nor could they reinforce their forces as needed. They are the ones with the manpower problem.
    Granted there is a steady supply of Saudi money and foreign jihadists sustaining the rebels, but that is also causing problems. As Bandolero pointed out, the insurgency is losing what popular support it had at the beginning of the conflict. Important elements of Syrian society want no part of the Salafist jihadists that dominate the rebel forces.

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