President Assad of Syria doesn’t care
Last year I wrote about the outbreak of violence in Syria, describing it as a surprising development best understood as an uprising of the country’s majority Sunni population in response to generations of domination by the country’s Alawite majority. I concluded the article on a pessimistic note, with the expectation that protestors at the time would continue to be slaughtered by the thousands over the coming months. Since then, however, parts of the Syrian military have broken off to form the Free Syria Army, most countries in the international community have condemned President Assad’s brutal crackdown, Syrian opposition groups have become increasingly unified and vocal, and early this year, in many New Year’s prediction columns, pundits across the American media made clear that they anticipated the fall of the Syrian regime.
But, you know what? President Assad doesn’t really care. He will continue to order his artillery to pulverize his urban opposition, as the deaths pile up by the thousands. What can the U.S. do to help the opposition stand up against their brutal government?
Sadly, not much. Leading figures in the United States have called for arming the Free Syria army in order to help them “to defend themselves.” It worked in Libya, why shouldn’t it work in Syria?
Unfortunately, the situation in Syria is much different in Libya. The Syrian armed forces are much larger and more sophisticated then those of Mommar Gaddafi. Even in Libya, whatever back-channel weapons rebel groups received were insufficient for overcoming government forces without massive (mainly NATO) air support.
In Syria, it’s not just about the imbalance in the number of weapons, but also the types of weapons. Providing small arms to the Free Syrian army is not going to prevent the government of Syria from continuing to blast away at city neighborhoods with powerful artillery. Taking a page from his father’s handbook, Bashir al Assad has mainly avoided becoming involved in urban warfare by simply leveling urban areas where resistance fighters are believed to enjoy local support.
The only way to counter such artillery is through the use of air strikes similar to those used by NATO forces against Serb positions during the Bosnian conflict. However, in that case, Bosnian Serbs lacked air power themselves and possessed only limited air defenses. Neither is true in the case of Syria. In short, the only effective path to aiding the Syrian opposition through military intervention would involve destroying Syrian air defenses, including the Syrian air force, before locating and conducting strikes on Syrian artillery positions while, at the same time, providing generous aid to Syrian opposition forces on the ground. No country has the will or the interest to go that far.
The only hope for the Syrian opposition is for larger scale defections from within the military itself. There are few signs that such divisions are in the offing. Much of the officer corps in the Syrian army is drawn from the middle and upper classes of Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities and bastions of support for the government. As the hopeful argument goes, international sanctions and continued instability will cause the government to lose support of these classes which will translate into the loss of faith in the Assad government by former loyalists in the military.
All of that seems a lot to hope for, and probably is, especially given that a majority of the officers in the Syrian army are Alawites who identify with the ruling party and who, partly out of fear about the nature of a post-Assad Syria, are willing to do the regime’s dirty work. Assad remains in power because he has strong support of well-placed minorities in the population, has the biggest guns, and because he is willing to do what autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen were not — use unrestrained brutality while ignoring international pressure. Might may not make right, but, you know what? President Assad doesn’t really care.