It'd be premature to write off Assad just yet

Following yesterday’s high profile bomb attack in Damascus and the subsequent urban fighting there, the Syrian regime is pushing back. Associated Press:

The opposition, which is fractious and lacks any real central command, has no hope of pacifying the country. There is no clear candidate to step in and lead should Assad go. And the violence has become far more unstable than many had ever imagined, with al-Qaida and other extremists joining the ranks of those fighting to topple the regime.

…Despite the rebel gains, the battle for Syria is not over yet. Although the rebels appear more powerful than at any stage of the uprising, their small-caliber weapons and rampant disorganization will make it all but impossible to defeat the regime in direct battle.

The rebels also have failed to hold territory for any significant amount of time, which prevents them from carving out a zone akin to Libya’s Benghazi, where opponents of Moammar Gadhafi launched their successful uprising last year.

Already, Syrian government forces are starting to drive the rebels out of pockets of Damascus. On Friday, government forces showed off a battle-scarred neighborhood of the capital that they say has been ”œcleansed” of fighters, but rebels say it was a tactical retreat that will allow them to expand their guerrilla war in the coming days and weeks.

The message coming out of the Obama administration is that Assad’s fall is imminent, and a think tank created by the US Congress has been hosting talks with what it calls “the mainstream of the opposition” – that is, the part of the opposition that likes the U.S. – to “plan for how to set up a post-Assad Syrian government.” However, Anand Gopal reports from the rebel town of Taftanaz that USIP’s mainstream may not be all it’s cracked up to be: “many in Taftanaz expressed their disdain for the SNC. ‘Who are they? Omar asked me. ‘What have they done?'”

Like the A.P. Analysis linked above, I have severe doubts that Assad is bowing out any time soon. The rebels still don’t have anything like the heavy weapons they need to overcome Assad’s core military force of Allawite units, who get all the best equipment. Unless whole Syrian military units begin defecting with their tanks and copters the rebels aren’t going to get those heavy weapons either. That means I see what’s coming not as analogous to Libya’s “Benghazi breakout” but more to the continuing back-and-forth between the Taliban and ISAF in Afghanistan, or between the Communist government and the taliban post the Soviet withdrawal. The rebels will have majority support, a “sea to swim in”, and may well end up the de facto government of large swathes of territory but Assad will have the heavy firepower to hang on to his capital and major cities as well as mount perpetual “clearing operations” that really clear nothing. I haven’t seen anyone make the military or political arguments as to why this shouldn’t be the case in any kind of way that involves actual evidence. The triumphalist talk of a full rebel victory being just around the corner is all wishful thinking as far as I can see. And even if it isn’t, then the way in which the SNC and other rebel factions who are well-connected to the West are being touted as the government-in-waiting, just ready to go as soon as assad leaves, certainly is.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

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  • from McClatchy.

    Joseph Holliday, an analyst of the Syrian insurgency for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said U.S. officials don’t believe “meaningful, political negotiations between the regime and the opposition” would ever occur. That means Assad’s removal almost certainly will come by force, and with no obvious government-in-waiting, there are scant details on what the day after would look like.

    Since President Barack Obama called for Assad’s ouster nearly a year ago, the United States and its allies adamantly have resisted military intervention, U.N.-led diplomatic efforts have collapsed and the regime has successfully kept most foreign media from reporting a clear picture of the muddiest of the Arab Spring uprisings.

    “Who are we even talking to?” Holliday said, referring to the U.S. government’s risk of pinning hopes on shadowy opposition figures who might be unable to deliver on the ground.

    A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity under diplomatic protocol, said American diplomats were frustrated that the opposition forces still haven’t managed to coordinate better with the rebel fighters or work out the internal differences that have led to a mosaic of competing forces – homegrown vs. exiles, secular vs. Islamist, armed vs. pacifist.

    At the same time, the official added, “the U.S. hasn’t wanted to knight someone” because it was important for the process to be seen as an all-Syrian undertaking.

    “‘He must go,’ then begs the question, ‘Who comes next?’” the official said. “And if we don’t have an answer to that, it’s hard to go further.”

    Syrian academics and technocrats – almost all of them exiles – who were tasked with creating a shadow government don’t appear to have real support on the ground in Syria, in Washington or at the United Nations, according to analysts and published remarks by officials.

    In a war game exercise last month, senior analysts in Washington who specializing in the Middle East played out scenarios for getting rid of Assad. In a grim report stemming from the exercise, the most pessimistic words were reserved for the prospects of a transitional administration.

    “None of the participants believed that the Syrian opposition would be strong enough to maintain some amount of civil order throughout the country after the fall of Assad, and none of the teams supported strong international intervention to play that role,” participant Nora Bensahel of the Center for a New American Security wrote in a recap published on the Website of Foreign Policy magazine.

    “This means that whenever and however Assad falls, civil strife could well escalate into violence and possibly into a continued civil war,” she added.

  • When I read pieces about the imminent demise of this or that leader on the hit list, I always wonder — is that one of those disinfo articles that Rumsfeld said the U.S. would be using to help things along?

    The foreign and military policy of Bush-Obama will be the ruin of this country. A trillion dollars a year for defense, a $3 trillion price tag for Iraq/Afghanistan (and rising). Who do these people in charge think they’re kidding. By almost any measure the last two administrations are the greatest threat to the United States imaginable. Why? Because they’re sowing the seeds for our collapse.

    Assad didn’t attack us. Therefore, Clintons specific demand and efforts for “regime change” are blatantly illegal.

    What a choice we have in 2012 – Bush on Steroids versus Bush

    The Money Party RSS

  • …extremely powerful in the “conventional” Sunni component of the security apparatus. My sense is that that personality (assuming they exist) has not yet come over. What one wants to do is to induce them to come over while also keeping their hands clean – timing will be key and this is going to be tricky because what you’re going to need to do is to decapitate two organizations at once: both the government and the resistance. The more successful one is at that, the more likely one is to keep the religiously based power structures under control. The less successful one is, the more fragmentary and ineffectual the replacement government will be and the more the religious “problematics” will be able to thrive.

    Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” ~ Steve Jobs

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