Opposition troops in Syria have largely come to be referred to as the Free Syria Army (FSA), but this title belies the fact that the anti-Assad side of the civil war equation is composed of several disparate groups, all with conflicting visions for a post-Assad Syria. In reality, the FSA was born out of a group of largely Sunni Syrian Army deserters led by Riyad al-Assad, and that is likely more or less the composition that remains to this day. The FSA claims to have now assembled a force of 40,000 men, but analysts have pegged the number at closer to 10,000. The more generous estimate that the FSA touts might include Islamist foreign fighters that are active in the Syrian theater, a group that shares the FSA’s short-term goals without falling under its immediate command structures. This disconcerting mix of ‘wholesome’ army deserters and ‘unwholesome’ Islamists has kept Western aid taps firmly shut so far.
The West’s apparent unease over supplying the FSA does not mean that weapon shipments are not flooding into Syria. Quite the contrary, the rebels are said to receive‘daily’ shipments via Lebanon and Turkey, which are likely financed and organized by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The FSA has carved out a territorial stronghold for itself in the north of Syria in the area adjacent to the Turkish border, primarily in the regions surrounding Idlib and to the north of Aleppo. There are other large pockets of FSA resistance to the north and south of Homs. However, given the guerilla tactics being favored by the FSA, the map is in a constant state of flux. The FSA is at a material disadvantage against government forces, so FSA commanders will often choose to melt into the countryside rather than stand and fight. In the past, the FSA has had success encircling large government deployments in Idlib and Aleppo, and although reports from the north are as unreliable as they are sparse, the FSA is said to be fielding increasingly sophisticated weaponry in the past six months.
Damascus has also reported heavy fighting recently, and some sources have attributed it to a rebel push out of strongholds in Ghouta, a region to the east of the capital. Although it’s possible that the FSA has expanded its operational capacity from its base in the north, the more likely explanation is that these attacks, some of which have included suicide bombings, are actually the work of the ‘unwholesome’ branch of the Syrian insurgency.
On the other side of the military equation, the Syrian Army shows no signs of being beaten into submission. Quite the contrary, if anything it seems poised to push rebel forces out of a few strategic cities. While real news is sparse and government information must be taken with a grain of salt, several facts can still be gleaned in regards to the Syrian Army. First off, the wave of desertions that originally swelled the ranks of the FSA seems to have receded, and the troops that remain are likely committed to seeing the conflict through to the end. Second, the Syrian Army has the manpower and material means to hold on to the major cities in Syria. Currently, there is no major urban center that has totally fallen to rebel forces ala Benghazi during the Libyan conflict. And finally, the Syrian Army will maintain its lifeline of foreign assistance, at least in some form, via arms shipments from Russia, a government that claims to have taken no sides in the conflict while simultaneously filling out ‘previously agreed-upon’ arms contracts for the Assad regime.
The sum of these parts is a civil war with a government side that is committed, well-supplied, and convinced all the way down to the individual foot soldier that its very existence is at stake. On the other side, there is a guerilla force that is decentralized, multifaceted, trans-border, and increasingly materially and logistically competent. Both sides enjoy a long bench of foreign backers ready to fight for their cause.
This all points to the indisputable fact that the Syrian civil war has ground to a stalemate and there is no end in sight.
There are a few scenarios that can arise moving forward, the first of which being a military stalemate much like the one we are currently witnessing. The Syrian Army will continue to hold on to cities, maintaining a firm grip on Damascus and a more tenuous one on the northern cities of Aleppo and Idlib, and the FSA will continue to recruit, resupply, and regroup in the countryside. Civilian casualties will continue to mount and refugee camps will grow in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and the north of Iraq. As more and more time passes, a de facto territorial division may begin to appear in Syria. Under this scenario, the war’s victor will be determined by attrition and exhaustion.
The second possibility is a compromise, which would be ideal in terms of mitigating the loss of life. However, several barriers to a negotiated solution currently exist, the biggest of which being that both sides still believe they can win. Fruitful negotiations are also frustrated by the fact that the Syrian opposition doesn’t speak with one voice, which is forgivable on the battlefield because everyone knows who the enemy is. The same can’t be said for politics- The National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the Syrian National Council, the National Co-ordination Committee, seculars and Islamists, locals and the diaspora- all of these actors give rise to a cacophony of disparate interests that defy direct talks. For proof, one needs look no further than Moaz al-Khatib’s call for government negotiations earlier this week. Al-Khatib, the leader of the National Coalition, called for the talks in light of the worsening humanitarian situation across the country. His comments drew immediate criticism from the Syrian National Council, who accused him of betraying the cause of Assad’s removal. And this is merely scraping the surface of the byzantine web of Syrian opposition groups.
The third scenario is a game-changing foreign intervention. This is the hardest to predict because of the huge number of variables involved. It is also potentially the most dangerous. Much has been written about the possibility of the Syrian civil war spilling its borders and triggering a regional sectarian conflict, and that it has yet to do so is a testament to the restraint of foreign backers on both sides. But this won’t necessarily be the case for the entire duration of the conflict. Israel’s recent airstrike on Syria is a good example of a potential catalyst. Should the Assad government want to start beating the war drum against Tel Aviv, Iran could get involved and the result would be a regional war. Similarly, Iran may choose to vent its recent economic frustrations by increasing its involvement in the Syrian conflict, which could draw Western countries into the conflict, and once more, the result is a regional war. In addition to these state-initiated political scenarios, there is also the sectarian element to be considered. Syria is surrounded by Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish populations that could conceivably be drawn into the conflict under certain macro circumstances.
Only time will tell how the Syrian civil war is resolved; likely a whole lot of it.
Zachary Fillingham is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com