DOĞU ERGİL

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DOĞU ERGİL
September 11, 2012, Tuesday

Tenacity of Syrian regime

Many analysts in Turkey were pretty convinced that the Syrian army would give in after a short while given the defections and the sectarian nature of its command structure. After all, nearly two-thirds of the population are Sunnis and they were expected to oppose the “minority regime.”

Now they are extending their previous deadlines. As the Syrian army proved more resilient than expected, the Turkish administration began to complain about being left alone in shouldering the increasing refugee problem and finding it hard to meet internal criticism of its ardent commitment to the Syrian opposition.

One major reason for the Syrian army to hold on is the nature of the opposition forces (labeled by some as “fundamentalists” or “jihadists,” who are accused of gross human rights violations that match those of the government forces), which scare a number of peoples that have heretofore supported the Assad regime for its secular character and the economic advantages made available to them. These groups see supporting the government as a matter of survival.

It is obvious that the Syrian army units are better equipped and trained compared to most of the irregulars of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). If the army units succeed in preserving their cohesiveness, some analysts believe, they can resist the opposition or even triumph over them.

Given the fact that Iran, Russia and China are there to help, this likelihood is seriously discussed in different circles. Another reason why individual defections did not turn into mass action is that highly trained and disciplined professional units are paired up with drafted soldiers that see their fortunes aligned with that of the government.

The strongest side of the Syrian army is its armored forces and the artillery. Trained and equipped to fight against a likely Israeli aggression, the mechanized forces and supporting artillery are capable of “softening” rival targets and rounding them up with the help of the infantry provided by the Republican Guard and loyal militia.

Unfortunately neither of the conflicting sides worry much about the people they are killing in the process; after all, civilians are considered to be “collateral damage.”

In need of more foot soldiers, the government called in the reserves and organized new irregulars. The Syrian army is also employing a pro-government militia called the “shabiha,” which are accused of committing some of the most brutal atrocities of the conflict. The way this civil war is going indicates the fact that fighting will continue even after the Assad regime falls. The “shabiha” are largely drawn from the ruling Alawite community that is stated to constitute roughly 12 percent of the population.

The present Syrian government is very brutal and has no limits in violating human rights, so it will vanish sooner or later. Despite this, it inevitability is mitigated by the ongoing support of the Alawites, non-Muslims, integrated Sunnis and the aloofness of the Kurds. This crucial support, which is still intact, helps prolong the life of the existing central authority.

Furthermore, the West (the US, the EU and Israel) is reluctant about a fast regime change for two reasons. It does not want to be drowned in the unending power struggles of the Middle East (or the Muslim world) as it has been in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Secondly, it does not want to engage in a global power struggle in Syria with other major contending powers like China and Russia. These factors will increase the survival of the Damascus government for some time to come.

However, the simple fact that the same government is fighting with its people in the outer districts of Damascus and the second biggest city of Aleppo shows it has lost a lot as it is. The loss of any of these cities will be the declaration of the fall of the Assad regime. Another loss will be turning these ancient cities into dirt if it is impossible to reclaim them. Cutting the water supply to Aleppo is a step towards total disengagement of the government from its people.

On the other hand, the rebels are doing similar things, including destroying the supply lines the army and its supporting factions use. The anxiety for survival has turned the civil war into carnage.

In the meantime, the rebels are getting more adept at destroying armored vehicles by roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. The Syrian army is getting out vintage armor from the post-World War II era, like T-54 and T-55 tanks. The major reason why more advanced weaponry like the T-72 tanks have been withdrawn from the battle zone is in preparation for a final showdown that must be won at all costs.

Of course the biggest advantage of the government forces is air power. But experts are predicting that sooner or later the rebels will acquire anti-aircraft weapons. When they do, the procuring side will teach them how to down aircraft, and that can change the course of the civil war.

In short, nothing is certain in Syria. There are no reliable scenarios; improvisation rules the day. But one thing is clear: The battle for Syria will continue even after the Assad regime is brought down.

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