During the Iraq War counter-insurgency phase, most of the fighting was done in the Baghdad region, including eastern parts of Anbar province. We held outposts in Anbar and at first used air power to knock back insurgents to keep them off balance. Eventually, we could move more troops out of the outposts for sweeps, and eventually we could work to clear the cities. Before the Anbar Awakening--where the Sunni Arabs switched to our side to fight al Qaeda--I speculated that it would take a pretty brutal campaign by Iraqi forces--as Iraqi forces expanded enough to be committed to the far west--to subdue the tribes in the wild west. The Awakening eliminated the need to do that. Syria needs to follow this pattern.
Consider that I now don't think Assad has enough forces to hold even the smaller Core Syria I figured he could aspire to lead.
Assad is down to 120,000 loyal security forces, it seems, and they just aren't that good despite the fact that the Syrian resistance isn't that well armed.
Recent casualty figures are just astounding:
"In July, at least 4,239 people were killed across Syria," Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the Britain-based watchdog, told AFP.
The figure includes 3,001 civilians -- among them civilians who have taken up arms -- as well as 1,133 government troops and 105 army defectors.
Three thousand dead civilians matches the worst of the Iraq War body counts--but with the difference that in Iraq most of the civilian casualties were the responsibility of the insurgents, terrorists, or death squads. In Syria, the government targets civilians.
It sure would be helpful to know how many of the civilian dead are insurgents. That is important. It isn't illegal to kill armed insurgents, after all. I always wondered how many civilian casualties in Iraq were really insurgents. I think it had to have been at least a couple hundred every month. But we never released body counts (a policy I concur with despite the lack of information for me).
But ponder the 1,133 government troops plus 105 defectors. We never lost over a thousand in any year of the Iraq War. Yet in one month, Syria has lost over a thousand killed.
The Syrian troops just aren't that good.
More important, how long can Assad endure such casualties? He may be recruiting thugs for irregular militias, but he needs to train troops to replace casualties just to continue to lose ground at the current rate.
How can he possibly expand the Syrian security forces the way we did in Iraq to eventually replace our forces?
Whether or not Assad wants to retreat to a Core Syria of the very western arc of the country from the Turkish border down through Damascus to the Israeli and Jordanian borders; or a Rump Alawite state in the coastal mountains, Assad needs to retreat to Core Syria.
From there, holding key terrain and outposts, Assad can use troops in a narrow area to clear and hold; raid with troops near those "oil spots" to protect the cleared areas; and strike outside the range of raiding ground troops with long-range artillery and air power.
Then, Assad can start to rebuild a counter-insurgency military of light and motorized infantry backed by artillery to expand the cleared areas.
Of course, there will be no "awakening" to save Assad from the need to wage a grinding counter-insurgency to exhaust the Sunni Arab resistance.
And if trying to re-control all of Syria doesn't work, Assad is at least better positioned to simply hold Core Syria or retreat to a Rump Alawite state.
If Assad is lucky, maybe he persuades Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan to take over and annex the abandoned portions of eastern Syria to keep the insurgents from becoming a state and preparing to fight a conventional war against whatever Syria holds.
I find it hard to believe Iraq would want more Sunni Arabs, but would Anbar Province secede from Iraq if they could join with Sunni Syrians and declare their own state?
I find it hard to believe Jordan would want any of Syria. But Turkey might be persuaded, I'd think, just to keep Syria's Kurds from declaring independence.
Of course, Syria need support for any of this. Iran is critical for money and thugs. But Russia is absolutely critical. Syria needs Russia to keep UN-authorized planes from enforcing a no-fly zone.
And Syria needs Russian financial support:
Senior Syrian officials have pleaded with Russia for financial loans and supplies of oil products, a sign that the global fallout from President Bashar Assad's crackdown on a rebellion is squeezing his regime.
While the Syrian delegation was holding talks in Moscow, a squadron of Russian warships was approaching Syria's port of Tartus, the only naval base Russia has outside the former Soviet Union. The Russian Defense Ministry said that some of the ships may call on the port to replenish their supplies.
The Russians seem a little shaky in their support. We shall see what their flotilla does when it reaches Tartus.
Syria's strategy isn't working. They have to know it. Will Assad try to maintain his rule in a state sized to what he can hold? Will he try a new strategy to hold it all?
Or will he just keep treading water until he slips under the waves of Sunni revolt?
UPDATE: More on maintenance problems and the need to deploy aircraft to make up for artillery and helicopter deficiencies.
Aircraft are harder to maintain than ground weapons, so this just delays the maintenance problem by putting uncommitted systems into action.
And aircraft are more likely to spur the West to intervene by using the favorite of intervention-lite today--the no-fly zone.