Monday, June 24, 2013

War in Syria

A Closer Look at the Combatants' Warehouses

While a great deal has been postulated about the inventory of US arms to be supplied to the opposition force, a growing "opinion" of domestic "news" estimates remain focused on primarily small arms, ammunition, anti-tank weapons and possibly anti-air craft weapons.  Arms beyond this scope would not be particularly useful to the opposition at this point.  Later in the conflict, that is, if the conflict matures to a state where the opposition could actually use more destructive fire power effectively and the should the Assad military provide suitable targets, supplying heavier weapons might make sense.

Assad's side has no problem with access to weapons -- either small arms or heavy arms.  The Syrian military has plenty of tanks, transport equipment, howitzer style field guns and unchallenged air superiority with both attack helicopters and jets.  Interestingly, even if additional supplies were denied the Syrian government forces, it would, most likely, be quite a long time before there were shortages severe enough to influence field tactics.

Attempts to blockade Syria to prevent additional forces from moving into the combat territory would present the greatest problem to the Syrian regime by limiting additional troops, not material supplies.  There are presently three primary routes of inflowing support, each one in heavy use. 

  • From Iran through Iraq -- heavy shipments of Iranian troops and supplies by truck.
  • Across the Lebanese border -- primarily Hezbollah troops, but not usually troops equipped with heavy weapons or supplies.
  • By sea -- open shipments of all types to off loading areas in established harbors protected by the well fortified Russian anti-ship installation at Tartus.
Tartus Naval Base, Syria (image source)

The Assad government has, apparently, used Sarin gas in limited engagements at various places.  The tactical employment of such use would typically be as an advantage in specific combat scenarios where other choices were unworkable -- for example, in an assault on a well fortified enclave which could not be approached by a conventional force of field artillery or tanks.

However, although there may well be such conditions are various places in the combat arena, MeanMesa suspects that these gas attacks were intended to intimidate the opposition troops more than solve troublesome, specific resistance.  Remember, the gas kills indiscriminately, combatants and non-combatants, including civilians hiding in reinforced bunkers and basements.

Such a gas attack would, most likely, have been directed more to inducing terror than in causing large numbers of casualties or resolving a localized resistance.  The opposition forces have adopted the predictable strategy of constant movement and dispersion to counter the fire power advantages of the government forces.

The Assad regime's military planners know that it is extremely unlikely that increasing the use of Sarin can be expected to turn the tide of the war.  The scope of a strategically effective gas attack and the number of casualties -- factors always accompanied by the somewhat ambiguous US position -- preclude this expanded use.

Syria Crosses The "Red Line" With Sarin Gas

President Obama's statement about what use of the gas would mean as a "tipping" factor in the US position was clear enough, even if the Syrian military chose to disregard it.  Administration detractors, desperately searching for their next avenue of attack in their relentless hope of sabotaging Administration policy, predictably salivated over these events with their jaundiced reinterpretation of them, creating more "red meat" for their already abused domestic audiences.

An easily anticipated "third column" emerged from the Washington Post at this point.  Because the Syrian dictator has prevented UN inspectors from collecting direct evidence of the nerve agent's use and subsequently maintaining a "chain of custody" prior to the laboratory investigation of the samples, the already less than credible US domestic media [Read the Post reporting here.] has eagerly committed itself, once again, to embellishing the "uncertainty" angle.

The American public, already suffering from war exhaustion after the Bush Administration's recklessly incompetent military adventures, is understandably nervous about such claims.  The small but vocal Republican minority, languishing in a perpetual state of distrust for the President thanks to the media projects with that aim, are apoplectic. 

While presenting a temporary "news item" right now, none of this will continue to mean much once the action begins.  The exploitive "fear generation" schemes are apparently not complicated by the unavoidable fact that the Obama Administration would have far less incentive to mislead the American public than any in recent history after watching the self-inflicted damage the previous outfit suffered from its deceptions justifying Iraq.

The Administration said at the outset that the evidence, while convincing, would not meet UN standards as "hard proof."  In response, the reporting by detractors doesn't argue that the evidence is false, but only that it is uncertain.  The domestic information starved followers of the story, indulging our now famous, grotesquely risk averse, cultural codependent insistence on guaranteed outcomes, impossibly credible intelligence and specific targets for blame in case anything might go wrong, are still bruised and quite understandably "gun shy" after the drubbing Bush and Cheney gave them.

It has been reported that the Syrian government has "repositioned" the Sarin stockpiles, but, as usual, the intention of that repositioning is unknown. It may have been moved to storage sites with better security, or the relocation may have been strategic to place the gas stock in position for quick deployment and use should conditions warrant it.

It is a mistake to presume that the Assads have any significant moral reluctance at mass murder of Syrian civilians.  The current dictator's father wiped out more than 40,000 Syrians while he was dictator.  At the time of this post the UN is currently estimating around 70,000 dead in the current conflict. If the parts of the intelligence which have been made public by the Administration are accurate, there have been slightly more than 100 cases where death resulted from the use of the nerve agent.

The Armies

As mentioned before, troop reinforcement is probably the highest priority for the Syrian government's side of this conflict.  The largely unorganized opposition forces have managed to inflict more casualties than they have suffered, although the recent escalation of violence by the government forces indicates a new determination to "tough their way through this."  Further, problematic rates of defection are still rising in the Syrian government forces.

Prior to the recent upsurges in Iranian and Hezbollah troops, the Syrian army was beginning to feel the shortage of man power, but with these reinforcements now streaming into the country, that reluctance has been replaced by a new willingness to widen the bombing and shelling targets.  The tactical artillery and air bombardment of Aleppo, Syria's largest metropolitan city, is no longer anything which could even generously be described as "surgical." 

Northern Syria, notably the city of Hama halfway between Damascus and Aleppo, was the site of some of the heaviest killing during the war of suppression conducted by the current dictator's father, Hafez al Assad.  Estimates of fatal casualties vary, but apparently around 25,000 to 30,000 Syrians were killed.  There were unverifiable reports of the use of hydrogen cyanide gas by the Syrian army in the Hama attacks in 1982.

The father, an Alawite with a Ba'athist political stance, died in 2000, leaving the country's "Presidency" to his son.  While espousing Ba'athist political ideas, the father was antagonistic toward the Iraqi Ba'athist, Sadam Hussein, and sympathetic with the Iranian side of the incredibly destructive Iran-Iraq war.  The son, current dictator Bashar al Assad, has downplayed this enmity with the old Iraq while clearly embracing the resupply route opportunities from Iran now possible through the Northern deserts of"new Iraq."

The conflict is drifting along toward the classic profile of a Shi'a versus Sunni sectarian split similar to what occurred in Iraq mid-way through the US invasion.  Both sectarian sides are contributing troops to their corresponding combatant parties at this point.

The Conflict

The typical model for Arab Spring uprisings has been faster paced than the conflict in Syria.  One way to interpret this is to consider the Syrian civil war as a response to the remarkably quick transfers of social and political power in other cases.  The international forces which have suffered the greatest losses in power from the "lightening" insurgencies in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt have drawn their own "line in the sand" with respect to Syria, determined to stop the rush toward "overnight" changes in ossified power structures established in the past.

The recent escalation in indiscriminate killing with the bombardment of civilian areas is the clear result of this.  The Syrian government would very much like to become an example of old power, emboldened with resources from sympathetic sponsors, decisively terrorizing and demoralizing its opposition.  This was the outcome in the 1982 war of suppression, and the current Syrian government is obviously convinced that such a Draconian victory can be repeated now.

al-Qusyar, Syria after "liberation" (image source)
At the time of this post the Syrian opposition forces are losing ground to the government.  The fall -- or, better described, the destruction -- of the southern city of al Qusayr opened a land route for Lebanese Hezbollah troops, consolidating the government's hold on much more of the country's South and freeing up regular Syrian army units for the attacks to the north on Aleppo.
The injection of additional arms to opposition forces will, very likely, reverse this trend in the near future.  It is reported that US CIA agents have already been training opposition fighters to use  anti-tank arms.  MeanMesa would assume that this training also included some sorts of anti-aircraft weapons, but such a development, if it is occurring, has been done very quietly.  News being released by the US Administration has been managed much more effectively than it was during the Libyan conflict.

In any successful insurrection outside aid can be inserted during times of opposition defeats, but outside geopolitical strategies must, necessarily, wait for opposition successes.  The Syrian opposition must begin winning territory and other field victories before decisive international political power can be effectively asserted against the regime. 

What We Can Expect

We might begin with what we can probably not expect.

First on this list will be any strategic moves which would place the US and the Russian Federation forces in direct conflict.  The US or NATO imposition of a "no fly" zone could, either by design or accident, include Russian Federation aircraft flying in and out of Tartus.  The Russians are re-supplying their base there in a manner similar to our own re-supply of NATO forces in Afghanistan after the Pakistan government closed the roads following the drone slaughter of a government check point.

The possibility of a Syrian opposition fighter firing a US supplied anti-aircraft missile at a Russian Federation cargo flight cannot be dismissed.  If the command and control structure of the rebels were more credible, this might be avoidable, but in the present state of the opposition outside insistence on such conditions would be frankly unrealistic.

We can expect that the Russians will continue to refrain from actively supporting the Syrian government by, for example, flying sorties against opposition strongholds in Russian Federation jets with Russian pilots.  However, we can expect the Russian Federation to defend its national facilities in Syria -- such as the naval station at Tartus -- quite aggressively.

We can expect the US State Department to grow rather harsh in its efforts to
encourage the Iraqi closing of the land corridor between Iran and Syria, shutting down the flow of Iranian troops and supplies.  The Syrian government may have grown so reliant on this Iranian assistance that it can convince the Russians to replace the route across Northern Iraq with naval transport through its Black Sea fleet.  Iran could, in this event, use its Caspian Sea access.

Unlike the eager cooperation from our Iraqi "allies," there is little prospect for unimpeded Iranian shipments of troops and supplies across Eastern Turkey.

Likewise, we can expect the US State Department to become even harsher in its effort to discourage Iran from continuing or increasing its intervention in Syria.  In this same manner, we probably can expect the UN to step up its pressure to discourage Lebanon's heretofore quite passive effort to exert its own sovereignty with respect to allowing Hezbollah to more or less determine the nation's policy autonomously.

We can expect the US State Department to encourage the Israeli government to stay out of the fray.  Even the most modest Israeli insertion of force would be detrimental given the prevailing attitudes toward that country by essentially all the other residents of the region.

We can expect additional troops gradually migrating into the war zone in support of both sides of the conflict.  There are already reports of Libyan soldiers -- with arms from both the Gaddafi regime and left over from the insurrection there -- joining in support with the opposition fighters.  There doesn't appear to be any reasonable possibility of altering this development much.

We can expect various governments in the region to increase the amount and fire power of the arms they are already providing the opposition forces.  A trend of opposition victories could reasonably "open the flood gates" for increased aid from the neighbors.

When we consider the prospect in its traditional definition, we cannot expect a "political solution" to emerge from "negotiations."  Such "solutions" may be possible below a certain level of blood letting and outrages, but that stage has permanently passed out of reach in this conflict.  Even looking at the scene from only one side, there is no prospect for the father whose children's throats were cut in his living room by some government militia to simply "let by gones be by gones."

Finally, we can expect continually increasing casualties, atrocities and refugees.  This conflict is not going to end quickly, and it is not going to somehow drift back to more genteel conduct.  However savage it has shown itself to be already, we can assume that conditions will grow significantly worse from here.

In the further posts in this continuing series, we can seek out some optimistic possibilities -- obscured from our sight right now by the complex, intractable nature of the present dilemma. Please visit MeanMesa for more posts on other aspects of the Syria conflict.

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