POMED Notes: Eyewitness Views from Syria’s Border
On Monday, two scholars from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy discussed the state of the Syrian uprising and potential avenues for U.S. engagement, based on the scholars’ recent information-gathering trip to Turkey and Lebanon. Longtime Syria watcher and influential commentator Andrew Tabler assessed the evolving components of Syria’s political opposition while defense specialist Jeffrey White offered his take on the armed elements of the uprising.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF version.
Andrew Tabler began by calling for the U.S. Government to reach out to all opposition groups operating in Syria, because “by all accounts, those taking the shots now will be calling the shots” after Assad falls. The U.S. must establish “direct contact with both armed and unarmed groups” if the U.S. hopes to have any influence during the inevitable transition period, Tabler said. He explained that the Syrian border region in northern Lebanon looks very different from the long border that Syria shares with Turkey: while the border with Turkey is porous and controlled in large part by rebel groups, the border with Lebanon remains “restrained” and northern Lebanon faces shelling by government troops “every day and every night.” Tabler said that sentiments in Lebanon “are much more sectarian than [he has] ever seen before.” His interview subjects often linked the Assad regime to Hezbollah, Iran and Shi’ism in general. In Turkey, the opposition is becoming “much more militarized,” including new affiliations between activists and armed groups. There is also a lot of tension with the refugees scattered throughout Turkey, including some protests by Turks against what they called the “terror camps” in southern Turkey that train and support the armed rebellion in Syria.
Tabler evaluated the structure of the opposition in northern Syria as well, noting that the quality of the relationships vary among the military councils, the Aleppo-based tawhid brigade, and various “revolutionary councils” from the countryside. There remains somewhat of a divide between civilians in the political sections of the revolutionary councils and the defected soldiers who generally spearhead the military operations, and there is a general fear among Syrian civilians that extremist foreign fighters could hijack their battle. One thing that unites these disparate groups within Syria, however, is a common “extreme negative view of the Syrian National Council,” Tabler reported. As one rebel commander told Tabler, “We fight against Assad, but we are ready to fight the SNC.”
Jeffrey White focused on the armed conflict underway in Syria, using his interviews in Lebanon and Turkey to draw a more comprehensive picture of who is doing the fighting and how effectively it is being done. White noted that the armed opposition has many layers and cleavages, including competition between individual fighters, rivalries between larger units, and rebels who range from secular to Islamist and from urban to rural. Although concrete numbers on rebel troops and weapons are impossible to pin down (White said that he was advised to “divide by five” any numbers that he did hear), White estimated that there are now 90-100 katiba, or rebel units, made up of anywhere from 50 to 200 fighters each. One FSA contact told White that there are 100,000 active rebel troops and another 100,000 waiting to receive arms, but White doubted the veracity of that number. In terms of the ideology of the fighters, White gave the general sense that defected soldiers fighting against Assad are more secular and the civilians who have taken up arms against Assad are more Islamist, but he said that there are many exceptions to that rule. The groups are generally cohesive at the katiba level because of the personal relationships that bind the fighters, but there are questions about effective leadership and command-control issues between larger units. Some of the units need additional weapons and ammo, but White said that corrupt government troops are selling the rebels substantial quantities of arms and the real need among rebels is anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons. The rebels are not dramatically affected by the Syrian air force, despite alarmist reports in the press. White assessed the regime’s position in the North as “increasingly precarious,” limited to lobbing shells into neighborhoods from isolated outposts, but as long as the Alawites remain “willing to execute every order” and the weapons stockpiles stay high, the regime can continue to fight for some time.
In the Q & A section that followed, Tabler and White addressed scenarios for moving forward as well as options for U.S. engagement. Tabler said that the regime “cannot hold on indefinitely,” predicating an inevitable contraction in regime control “from North to South and from East to West.” The blowback in Lebanon will likely be sectarian, and the reaction in Turkey will likely be split among the Sunnis and Nusayris (Turkish Alawites). Tabler is also very concerned about flare-ups and spillover into the Kurdish conflict. White was not willing to predict how or when the regime will fall, but he said that the regime’s attempts to defend everywhere instead of making strategic withdrawals from certain rebel strongholds will prove to be a “strategy for failure.” The regime’s only potential avenue for success is to break the alliance between the people and the FSA, White said. He estimated the size of the remaining Syrian army at between 115,000 and 130,000 troops, and he said that due to Syria’s long-term preparation for a war with Israel, the regime does not lack for weapons. The Syrian military can also strike anywhere at any time due to their air superiority, which further motivates the rebels to call for the international imposition of safe havens and no-fly zones.
Tabler said that the USIP “Day After Project” is a “really good effort,” but it also underscores the U.S. administration’s “overwhelming focus” on post-Assad Syria, overlooking the ongoing fight and the groups that are actually doing the fighting. Because the U.S. took a hard line against engaging with armed groups early on, the U.S. will have a hard time promoting a secular Syria when these armed groups play a large role in the future transition period. As the U.S. continues to ramp up engagement, some conversations will have to involve arms transfers, but the groups fighting in Syria are not enemies of the U.S. and all warrant serious attention. Tabler also worries about Iranian-supported attacks inside Turkey.