Wednesday, April 29, 2015

About That Light at the End of the Tunnel

Assad's forces and supporters are looking shaky:

The Syrian Army has suffered a string of defeats from re-energized insurgents and is struggling to replenish its ranks as even pro-government families increasingly refuse to send sons to poorly defended units on the front lines. These developments raise newly urgent questions about the durability of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

“The trend lines for Assad are bad and getting worse,” said a senior United States official in Washington, who, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence assessments, nevertheless cautioned that things had not yet reached “a boiling point.”

The erosion of the army is forcing the government to rely ever more heavily on Syrian and foreign militias, especially Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group allied with Iran.

This is what I've been saying. The war is pushing Assad's forces to the breaking point.

Although I'm not sure whether the strain is sufficient to cause Assad's forces to actually break in the near future.

But the trend is clear if nothing is done to change the vector.

Remember, the fall 2013 Kerry-Lavrov chemical weapons deal was supposed to hold off our aid to rebels (including air support) long enough for Assad to defeat the rebels. Assad has not made good on that promise.

Had we started helping rebels back before jihadis dominated the resistance to Assad, we might have somebody in place right now other than ISIL and other jihadis capable of marching into Damascus.

But no, we didn't want to "militarize" the conflict as our Secretary of State put it. More than 200,000 casualties later, here we are.

And we're still screwing this up:

The U.S. plan to train and arm a force that is expected to eventually total more than 15,000 troops and to get underway in the coming weeks is a major test of President Barack Obama's strategy of engaging local partners to combat extremists.

But administration officials are already scaling back expectations of its impact and some rebel leaders say the force risks sowing divisions and cannot succeed without directly targeting Syrian government forces.

Let me start with the basics. It is insane to recruit and train a rebel force while telling these rebels that our objective is not to march on Damascus and throw Assad out of power but to put enough pressure on Assad to get him to negotiate--which will eventually get Kerry a lovely Nobel Peace Prize while the rebels look forward to Assad's secret police quietly arresting and torturing them when the press corps attention dies down.

Real people won't die for Kerry's vanity.

So we won't have an rebel army as much as we have a bullet point to defend against the charge that we are doing nothing.

And back to the Times article:

Syria’s once-centralized armed forces [are being transformed] into something beginning to resemble that of the insurgents: a patchwork of local and foreign fighters whose interests and priorities do not always align.

They also give Assad credit for 125,000 regulars and 125,000 irregulars including the Shia foreign legion that Iran has provided. It is not clear if Hezbollah's 5,000 are part of that latter number.

The important point is that Assad's forces are becoming more of a static and strategically immobile force tied to local defense because so many are militias.

One of Assad's advantages has been that his military is strategically mobile while the large rebellion largely is a local force. Assad could reinforce areas under threat and strike at the rebels with greater force.

But if Assad can't do that as he once could, a rebel success in one part of Syria that leads to Assad's defenders cracking there could lead to rapid rebel advances in that area.

If that happens, morale in Assad's forces and supporters could really break quickly as it becomes every man for himself time with people fleeing to Turkey, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Jordan rather than die in a futile cause of propping Assad up.

When the revolt broke out, if things went the way the trajectory indicated, Assad was doomed. So President Obama may have felt that he was rushing to the front of the parade to collect a free trophy by demanding that Assad had to go.

But Iran intervened and Russia provided the weapons. That vector was changed and defeat was averted.

Then jihadis flocked to Syria, eclipsing and marginalizing the non-jihadi rebels. Assad did not win with his revitalized forces despite the bolstering that the Kerry chemical arms deal and our anti-ISIL aerial intervention provided, and now the pressures leading to Assad's defeat are building up again.

So the president was right--except for who would exploit Assad's going away.

What can change this? Will Assad successfully pull back to an Alawite rump Syria that perhaps abandons Damascus as the capital of his realm?

Does Iran gain such an infusion of money from a faux nuclear deal with us that Iran can pour resources into Syria to prop up Assad even more?

Does Russia make a major effort to save Assad in whatever territory Assad can hold by sending in Russian troops in an effort to bolster Assad forces' (and supporters') morale?

Or if Assad's forces break, will Turkey intervene in force (with multiple corps) to sweep into western Syria to organize the survivors of the Assad regime in an anti-ISIL force that pushes Assad's Baath Party aside?

Will Israel take advantage of an Assad defeat to hit Hezbollah while they are reeling from retreat from Syria in order to march all the way to Baalbek in the northern Bekaa Valley in Lebanon?

And will we get our act together to put some kind of decent rebel force into the field? How can we be so bad at this in Syria where so many hate Assad when Russia can seemingly astro-turf rebels at will?

It is certainly going to get uglier before it gets better. We decided to do nothing when Assad was reeling 3-4 years ago. That decision to be passive was as much a decision as any active policy we might have started. Tell me, does that count as "not doing stupid stuff," as the president proudly stated was his new guiding principle?

Let's hope that the bloodshed Syria has endured at least opens the way for something better for Syrians rather than a return to autocracy or a flirtation with Islamic republic. They deserve a real light and not the headlight of another oncoming train.

UPDATE: Arab states may provide defenses against Syrian air power to the Southern Front rebels:

“Rebel factions in the area are preparing for large-scale military operations and have received promises of Arab air cover, or at least the provision of anti-aircraft rockets,” a source in the FSA told Alaraby Aljadeed in an article published Tuesday.

I don't know if this is more than RUMORINT (rumor intelligence), but as long as Saudi Arabia is in a proxy battle with Iran over the fate of Yemen (while we make our Arab allies wonder about our reliability as we ask Iran to help calm Yemen down!), why not battle Iran in Syria, too?

As those southern rebels make some gains (despite recent Syrian efforts that included Hezbollah shock troops all the way that south), Assad's losses in the north stretch Syrian troops a great deal:

Islamic rebels captured 100 Syrian government troops and militia fighters after seizing the Syrian military's last urban stronghold in Idlib province over the weekend, according to a human rights observer group.

An array of allied militant Islamic factions, including al-Qaida's Nusra Front, stormed into the town of Jisr al-Shughour from the Turkish border on Thursday, taking most of it by Saturday.

Unless something dramatic happens to improve his fortunes, Assad can't hold the ground he is trying to fight for right now. Either his forces collapse or he contracts his realm.

And even the latter is risky with so many of his forces being local defense forces that won't want to leave their home areas. Recall that South Vietnam tried to retreat to a core area when North Vietnam invaded in 1975 and Saigon's military couldn't handle the orders to do that when it meant leaving families behind.

UPDATE: Oh, and Saudi Arabia has deployed their most loyal ground forces--the National Guard (not to be confused with our reserve force of the same name)--to the Yemen border:

SANG forces being deployed included a mechanised infantry brigade as well as artillery, air defence, reconnaissance, engineering, logistics, and anti-armour units.

So it can't be that large if it is a brigade reinforced with other assets. But it is more loyal and reliable than the regular army.

UPDATE: More on Assad's military, financial, and public support problems.