The Secret Battle for Syria

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Few observers of the Syrian calamity would have predicted that a final battle of Damascus would have begun so soon with such a lethal display of Syrian opposition strength.  For almost 8 months it has been a veritable article of faith among Syrian watchers that the Assad regime -- continuously replenished and reinforced by Russian and Iranian arms -- would never face a strategic military threat inside the capital even if occasional peripheral skirmishes gripped some of Damascus' suburbs.  But yesterday's breach of Assad's inner sanctum defenses by a well-placed bomb that killed Assad's military high command is proof enough that Syrian opposition forces are increasingly able to level the battle field.

It's a shame Assad himself was not in the same room when the bomb went off.

Given the media blackout imposed by the Assad regime, it is extremely difficult to decipher what and who has taken up arms against each other inside the war-torn nation.  But after several months of assessing the situation from neighboring Turkey and Lebanon, and consulting with Arab reporters and Syrian opposition leaders who have contacts inside Syria, a murky, violent and terrifying picture is emerging of who and what is engaged in the fighting for and against the Assad regime.

First, the relatively known ingredients of outside military and intelligence interference:

With the assistance of "non-lethal" U.S. strategic communications equipment and reconnaissance support carried into Syria by Turkish military teams through refugee safe havens on the Turkish-Syrian border, units of the increasingly organized Free Syrian Army have lethally deployed anti-tank weapons and shoulder-fired grenade launchers smuggled from Libya and Lebanon courtesy of elements of Gulf Cooperation Council military council.

Turkey has ramped up ammunition transfers and reconnaissance support, including the occasional overflights to detect Syrian troop movements (the Syrians shot down one of Turkey's jets a few weeks ago).  U.S. CIA drones have also overflown Syria outside the prying eyes of Russian forward intelligence based on Russian ships stationed at its fortified naval base in Tartus.  CIA operatives are also desperately attempting to identify and monitor Assad's WMD stockpiles, with growing alarm that they may fall into the hands of Iranian agents or al Qaeda terrorists or worse,  be used by the regime in a last ditch stand against its opponents.

Also assassination squads trained by Free Syrian Army commanders (with the assistance of Turkish and Saudi sniper trainers) have been picking off key Syrian military commanders in Homs and in Syria's northern and southern provinces sowing fear and increasing discord among Syrian commanders.  Turkish, Qatari, Saudi military instructors have been training young Syrian opponents of the regime on the fine arts of basic military tactics, including hit and run tactics and night-time assaults on Syrian army barracks.

What is missing from the battlefield are Stinger ground to air shoulder-fired missiles to pick off attacking Syrian helicopter gunships.

But there is far more to the subterranean saga that constitutes this struggle for Syria, and a good part of has less valor surrounding it.

In fact, in virtually every Syrian city, town and village there is a veritable Star Wars bar scene of unsavory thugs, killers, opportunists and criminals adding to what really has become a mini civil war at the local level as authority, or what constitutes as authority, has broken down.

Never mind that major elements of the Syrian National Council have failed to provide a cohesive political cover to local Syrian opposition -- incessantly squabbling instead of engaging in inter-sectarian dialogue and accommodation and having little impact on the fighting inside the nation.

Think about what it what must feel like to be a civilian Syrian family inside a besieged neighborhood today struggling to survive the firestorm of indiscriminate artillery leveled at them by the Assad regime, with life-threatening shortages of medicine and food as the following cast of characters roam apparently more or less at will....

-- Al Qaeda Terrorists from Iraq and Yemen:  Have infiltrated into Syria from neighboring Iraq.  Their goal is to inflict as much havoc as possible instructing Syrians on the proper construction of IEDs and recruiting younger Syrians to al Qaeda in the bargain.  Because they are the masters of the IED, Syrian locals who have taken arms up against the regime have come to increasingly rely on these terrorists for direction, leadership and training.  As convoluted as it sounds, the Assad regime has allegedly hired al Qaeda operatives that it harbored and supported during the Iraq war to attack non-strategic targets in and around Damascus in order to substantiate its allegations that foreign terrorist groups are responsible for the mayhem.

-- Iranian Basij and their Syrian Shabiha equivalents:  The Assad regime has imported the dreaded Gestapo-like bloodthirsty Iranian Basij who have trained regime-endorsed killing squads known as the brutalizing Shabiha, to roam at random committing wholesale massacres of townspeople.  These  killers terrorize day and night with no accounting for their horrific crimes... their job only to exact regime vengeance and stoke mind-numbing fear against anyone accused of supporting the opposition.  Those not immediately killed by the Shabiha are the unlucky ones.  The dead ending Shabiha have set up a string of torture centers in each Syrian town.  International human rights organizations have received reports that the Shabiha have resorted to torture against children to extract damning information against their families.  Waiting in the wings are para-military Shiite elements of Iraq and Iran who are determined to prevent the Assad regime from being toppled.

-- Saudi Freelancing Clerics:  Nothing like a good ol Sunni/Shiite civil war for Saudi clerics to take advantage of to spread their extremist Wahabi gospel.  Money is the mother's milk of arms purchases, and there has been a free flow of Saudi funds from a particularly evangelical branch of the Saudi clerical establishment funding the creation of local religious social "welfare" cells that are dispensing everything from desperately needed medical supplies to baby formula to arms.  Saudi clerics have dispatched local Sunni religious operatives to create local Wahabi social councils in each Syrian city to plant the flag and to contest control from more secular Syrian opposition elements fighting the regime.

-- Criminal Gangs:  Vast swaths of Syrians are getting shaken down by criminal gangs which are extorting protection money from anyone and everyone... never mind religious affiliation.  The gangs are largely Syrian ex-prisoners, who, like Somali pirates, have resorted to kidnappings and thefts to extort money.  As with any criminal element, they are often bought off by the highest bidder -- some gangs doing the bidding of the regime.

-- Syrian Sectarian Militias:  Unlike most Arab states, Syria is made up by a patchwork of Islamic and Christian sects -- the minority ruling Alouite/Shiites constituting just 7 percent of the population and the majority Sunnis nearing 74 percent of the combined Islamic population. Outside the Assad clan, particularly in the Alouite stronghold around the port city of Latakia, Alouites have formed several militia organizations to defend against what they expect will be recriminatory attacks by Sunni majority vengeance seekers against them.  The Alouite militias have been funded and supported by neighboring Russian naval forces stationed at their naval base in neighboring Tartus.  Non-Sunni Ismailis, another minority Shiite sect, have reportedly reached out to Hezbollah for protection.  Meanwhile, Christian sects, made up of Greek Orthodox, and Maronites constituting 10 percent of Syrians, have been forming their own militias for self-protection.  Several Maronite militia commanders have entered Syria from neighboring Lebanon to provide training to several Christian sectarian para-military organizations.  

-- Lebanese Christian Militias:  The spillover from Lebanon has been palatable.  Lebanese Sunni Palestinian militiamen have been smuggling arms to their Free Syrian Army colleagues across the porous Syrian-Lebanese border. Qatari intelligence operatives, alongside their Saudi counterparts, have used Beirut as a staging area of help smuggle arms to Free Syrian operatives.

Ironically, there has been no credible evidence of either neighboring Jordanian or Iraqi military or intelligence operatives directly active inside Syria given their own respective stakes in Syria's future.  And although Israeli intelligence operatives have been working with Jordanian counterparts on the Syrian-Jordanian border to monitor developments and share intelligence with American and European counterparts, they have refrained from directly interfering inside Syria in order not to lend credence to Assad's accusations of Zionist interference against his regime.  Of course, no one can be quite sure who or what else is opportunistically piling into this witch's brew since the chaotic environment belies the critical importance of Syria's future to the rest of the tumultuous Middle East.

Two days ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) officially acknowledged what we have known all along, that this is a virulent, dual to the death civil war. Syria reached this abyss long ago and has fallen into, courtesy of the diplomatically felonious Russian rackets operation on behalf of Assad, and a countervailing "run for the hills" attitude of the Obama White House which could not get itself to come up with any coherent policy whatsoever for almost 17 months.

And despite having so little to show for so much chest pounding, to this day the Obama Administration is still dragging its unsteady, ever-so-reluctant feet to do everything possible to keep the Syrian sectarian lid from completely blowing the country apart.  Inter-sectarian communal cooperation is a vital, missing piece of the unraveling drama.  With all of the destabilizing opportunism going on inside Syria, there is very little evidence of American-directed political opportunism outside Syria to foster some modicum of inter-communal dialogue.  This should be the easy part!
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