The administration’s Syria policy represents a total collapse of the declared U.S. position that Assad has lost legitimacy and should leave power.
5:10 PM, Mar 1, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
Jumblatt’s call for a soft defection drives home to Assad the fact that the only sect he can count on are the Alawites. Perhaps the army’s most loyal unit, the 4th Armored Division, is under the command of Assad’s younger brother Maher. On Tuesday, Maher al-Assad’s men were sent to the Baba Amr district of Homs, after Syrian forces failed in their three-week long offensive to enter the city. It wasn’t until the army shut off the FSA’s last supply line that it was able to enter Baba Amr—spearheaded by nearly 7000 soldiers from the 4th Armored Division, which is roughly the entire unit.
FSA spokesmen are calling their withdrawal “a tactical retreat,” and presumably FSA fighters will move on to the next city, as they’ve done over the last several months. Then the Syrian army will have yet another fire to put out, while another is starting somewhere else. This all goes to the main questions: Why can’t the regime put down the uprising once and for all? And why did it take 26 days for a vastly superior military force to put the FSA to flight from Baba Amr? Because the regime cannot afford the casualties that it would absorb in storming an urban battlefield that works to the advantage of its defenders.
The Syrian army faced a similar dilemma in the early stages of the Lebanese civil wars, when it surrounded Christian neighborhoods like Achrafieh in 1978. As Tony Badran, a research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains in a recent article: “despite vastly outnumbering the Christian militias in East Beirut—15,000 to 20,000 Syrians to several hundred Christian militiamen defending their neighborhood—the Syrian Arab Army was unable to enter and take the city.”
As Badran explains, the weaponry used against the Christian enclaves three decades ago was the same that the army used at Homs over the last month—“field artillery, tanks, heavy mortars … and multiple rocket launchers.” The problem then, as now, is that “the Syrian army was not prepared to risk high casualties. In fact, reports from the period indicate that the Syrians had estimated a potential loss in excess of 3,000 men had they pressed ahead with a full invasion of Achrafieh.”
It’s useful to note that this was the assessment of the Syrian army’s position fighting Christian militias in Lebanon, while today a sectarian sliver of that army is taking on Syria’s Sunni Arab majority. Who knows what, if any, official casualty estimate the Assad regime is working with today? The only assessment that matters is that Assad cannot afford to squander his most limited resource, one which no Russian arms shipment can resupply—those men who are unquestionably willing to kill and die for the regime, Alawites.
The Syrian army, or the only part of the army that figures in the regime’s calculations right now, is essentially a sectarian militia. It doesn’t matter how much firepower it has, how many tanks or pieces of artillery it has at its disposal, if there are not enough Alawites to man them.
3. Magnitude of the uprising
The notion that Syrians haven’t done enough to rise up against the regime is perhaps Clinton’s most vicious argument. Here, the secretary of state explains to one interviewer, Clinton’s waiting on Syria’s two biggest cities to do something:
Presumably, Clinton is referring to the merchant classes of Aleppo and Damascus whose economic interests have so far prevented them from betting against the regime. If the administration’s only tactic against Damascus so far is to level economic sanctions on regime figures, it should not be blind to the fact that the war in Syria has gone hot. To rise up against the regime means not merely holding on to foreign currency but picking up arms—or having a weapon thrust in your face. America’s top diplomat is apparently unaware of the dimensions of that war.
She told her interviewer: “[Y]ou don’t see uprisings across Syria the way you did in Libya. You don’t see militias forming in places where the Syrian military is not trying to get to Homs.” If Clinton thinks the uprising is limited to Homs, someone at Foggy Bottom should find the secretary a map.
As Jonathan Spyer wrote in TWS two weeks ago, there are FSA units all over Idleb Province, where the regime is now concentrating forces. Deraa, Baniyas, Lattakia, Hama, Deir al-Zour, Zabadani, and Rastan are among the many Syrian cities that have fought against the regime and are still fighting. In Homs earlier this week, 13 opposition activists even shed their blood protecting foreign journalists. But who knows? Given the White House’s position, that was probably just al Qaeda trying to earn bonus points in Western capitals.
The administration won’t arm the Free Syrian Army, because backing proxy forces to fight on behalf of American interests, according to administration officials, is just too complicated. Instead, the White House is going back to the U.N. Security Council, where it’s drafting a new resolution along with France intended to win, finally, Russian support. The draft supports “a peaceful political transition in the country and starting a serious political dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition.”
That is, after a year in which Assad has made war on his own country, the Obama administration still believes he is capable of the reform that would lead to a peaceful political transition and a dialogue with those he’s raped, tortured, and murdered.
Taken as a whole—the administration’s actions, its peculiar faith in Russia to do the right thing at the Security Council, and now Secretary Clinton’s statements—the administration’s Syria policy represents a total collapse of the declared U.S. position that Assad has lost legitimacy and should leave power. It seems that when the president called for Assad to step down in August, he was unprepared not only to lead, but even to follow, for the Syrian opposition has drafted its own position in its own blood.