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April 26, 2012


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Syria faces neo-mujahideen struggle
By Victor Kotsev*

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have won a battle earlier this year (as the retreat of the Free Syrian Army from the ruined city of Homs testifies), but he is nowhere near winning the war. The uprising is quickly turning into a full-scale insurgency - a foreign-sponsored insurgency, to be more precise, which some analysts term a "neo-mujahideen strategy".

After Saturday's unanimous vote, the lines at the United Nations Security Council have blurred somewhat: Resolution 2043, introduced by Russia, authorized the sending of 300 unarmed military observers to supervise the implementation of the latest peace plan spearheaded by United Nations peace envoy and former secretary general Kofi Annan.

By most accounts, however, this is no more than a token gesture, which will not stop the bloodshed, but may win some time for all sides to regroup and to shore up their strategy. The status quo is clearly unsustainable, but an ominous silence, at least as concerns the next big moves, has set in.

On the ground, state lines have blurred as well - although not officially, at least not yet. The powers with the greatest stakes in the Syrian conflict look at the map and increasingly appear to see networks of ethnic and religious groups scattered across a number of countries, rather than the traditional state borders that nominally define the space.

If a regime is too strong militarily to be defeated from the outside, it can be torn apart from the inside - yet this is a game that requires great skill and caution, as well as the micromanagement of an enormously complicated web of regional relationships and rivalries.

Neighboring countries, whose populations have participated in these networks for many years, typically have an edge in this game over distant superpowers, but they also have a lot more at stake in it. A mistake can cost them dearly and can set the fire of identity conflict to their own proverbial houses.

This logic fits the situation Turkey finds itself in with respect to Syria. The two countries were bitter rivals for decades, though in the past years - until last year's uprising - Ankara sought to reassert itself on the Middle Eastern political scene, and seemingly perceived Assad's regime as its prized instrument for channeling influence into the Arab world.

The Arab Spring put paid to that, but Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan adjusted quickly and tried to champion the cause of Syrian freedom, ostensibly in hopes of winning even greater clout among the Arabs in this way than his relationship with Assad could ever have afforded him.

Since last summer, the Turkish press has speculated that Erdogan might order the army to create "buffer zones" in its southern neighbor; [1] however, this military option did not materialize, and currently seems distant at best. It hinges, among other things, on some unclear bargaining between the United States and Turkey. According to a number of reports, Turkey is asking for a strong American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) backing in any military operation in Syria.

While the precise meaning of this "backing" is unclear, we can read this along the lines of the Turkish request for US$26 billion in exchange for letting the United States invade Iraq from its territory in 2003. [2] Meanwhile, Turkey has offered broad support to the Syrian opposition, including bases on its own territory.

A different kind of military approach, reportedly "backed" by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and apparently sanctioned quietly by the United States, is taking shape. James Traub, writing for Foreign Policy Magazine, calls it "the neo-mujahideen strategy":

One person I spoke to who does have a plan is a former government official with extensive experience in Syria. The opposition, he argues, needs not just weapons but "a comprehensive military and civilian battle plan" to defeat Assad. He envisions a multilateral effort in which the United States would provide not just communications technology but real-time military intelligence to help the rebels respond to government troop movements. Gulf states would provide the bulk of the weapons and funds; the Jordanians might provide special forces to work closely with the militia; Turkey would provide the staging ground itself as well as other forms of aid; and diplomats would give strategic guidance to the SNC.

Such an effort would look less like the bombing campaign in Libya and more like, well, the US Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored campaign to arm and train the mujahideen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. This is, of course, not a terribly encouraging analogy, since yesterday's anti-Soviet warriors became today's anti-American Taliban. We need no better reminder of the unintended consequences of supporting foreign insurgencies.

However, he did not shy away from the comparison. "We need to do what we did under [former US president Ronald] Reagan," he said, "which is to actively support these insurgencies". But, he adds, we need to know who we are working with, to set out clear standards of behavior and to condition our help on maintaining those standards - as we did not do in Afghanistan. And we need to be careful that the international effort doesn't exacerbate the problem: The Saudis, for example, are likely to bring an overtly sectarian agenda to Syria. The effort would be better off with a bigger role for the Turks, and a smaller one for the Saudis. [3]

Such a strategy would seek to wear out Assad's forces and deplete his war chest. There are indications that it is already working: according to a recent Reuters report, for example, Syria has resorted to selling off its gold reserves at steeply reduced prices, a sign of desperation. [4]

His war machine is likely starting to strain as well, and military analysts point out that the ceasefire - however imperfect, as shown by the continuing violence - may be a welcome chance for him to regroup his forces.

According to an expert cited in a separate Reuters report, "It's demoralizing conducting counter-insurgency operations, shelling urban areas and having troops deploy away from home ... These place enormous strains on armed forces. And he has very limited numbers of elite units that are available, so there are benefits to his military strategy from the ceasefire." [5]

While Assad currently controls a formidable force, equipped with sophisticated Russian-made air defenses and ballistic missiles tipped with chemical weapons, which acts as a powerful deterrence against a foreign intervention, it is likely that in the future his grip on power will deteriorate. According to Syria expert Joshua Landis,

I doubt he will have a lot more success than the US has had in Iraq or Afghanistan, although, his army probably understands Syrians a lot better than US troops and commanders did Iraqis. But they will likely be provoked into over-reacting to terrorism, road-side bombs and demonstrations as they have already been. They can only lose the battle for hearts and minds. The Alawites cannot regain the battle for hearts and minds. They can only instill fear and play on Syrian anxieties about turning into a failed state, such as exists in Iraq. That is what worked in the past for the Assad regime. The regime has no new tricks up its sleeve. Syrian State TV is now trying to demonize the Saudi monarchy for being descended from Jews and backwards. That says a lot about the regime's tactics. [6]

It bears noting that the full extent of the regime's violence has yet to come to light, but according to the latest United Nations statistics at least 9,000 have died since the start of the uprising.

The fragmentation of Syria under the pressure of a cross-border insurgency promises many more deaths; moreover, this strategy takes away some of the glitter of big power diplomacy and shifts the focus back on regional micro dynamics. The United States - along with Russia, China, and the European powers - lacks the knowledge and long-standing relationships with the countless groups and political interests on the ground which regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran have. This kind of leverage is critical for micro managing an insurgency.

As an old cliche has it, the United States is playing poker in the Middle East, while Iran is playing chess. Assad is similarly playing chess, and, moreover, is backed by Iran.

This explains, in part, why Turkey is essential for this strategy to work. However, it also poses enormous problems for the Turks. The Syrian conflict could easily spill over into Turkey: as Soner Cagaptay observes, Turkish Alevis, who make up between 10-15% of the population, could end up supporting Assad. [7] Such support would probably be political rather than violent, yet, as Cagaptay notes, it may "complicate any international intervention against Assad's regime".

The Kurdish insurgency is an even bigger thorn in the Turkish side, and the Syrian regime's close ties with the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) serve as a reminder to Erdogan that his country, too, could suffer greatly by an insurgency. As MK Bhadrakumar reported in Asia Times Online, Erdogan might be trying to neutralize this threat by using his relationship with Iraq's Kurds, but this is "a tall order". [8]

More broadly, if a prolonged insurgency takes place in Syria, this would represent a new evolution for the Arab Spring (despite the sporadic use of similar tactics previously, including, more systematically, by the regime of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi). Needless to say, this is a dangerous shift, and it promises more bloodshed and greater regional fragmentation.

It is quite possible that the map of the Middle East will look different in the near future; new countries may well appear, and some may be reduced in size. We can anticipate a debate whether this fragmentation, and the accompanying bloodshed, is caused by a superpower vacuum (the United States scaling back its regional presence) or by malicious interference. If anything, the reliance on insurgency strategy and tactics - to further democratic processes, no less - would suggest the latter.

1. A Turkish Buffer Zone Inside Syria?, Hurriyet, 3 July 2011.
2. Threats and responses: White House; US is pessimistic Turks will accept aid deal on Iraq, The New York Times, February 20, 2003.
3. The Least Bad Option, Foreign Policy, March 30, 2012.
4. Syria selling gold reserves as sanctions bite - sources, , Reuters, April 18, 2012.
5. Analysis: Assad foes doubt Syria truce but have few options, Reuters, April 20, 2012.
6. Ceasefire Efforts Unlikely to Work; Government Pursues Rebels; Muslim Brotherhood’s New Convenant, Syria Comment, April 8, 2012.
7. Will Syria's Sectarian Divisions Spill Over into Turkey?, Washington Institute/New Republic, April 14, 2012.
8. US, Turkey and Iraqi Kurds join hands, Asia Times, April 23, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst. This article first appeared at Asia News.

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