Middle East

10 Things You Need to Know about Syria

The Arab Spring officially reached Syria on 15 March 2011 as protests began in Damascus, Aleppo, and the southern city of Daraa. The protests were triggered by the incarceration and torture of several young students, who were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti in the city – ‘The people want the fall of the regime.'[1] Today, 4 years on, with the death toll well in excess of 200,000 people and with half of the country’s 22 million population displaced, the uprising continues to rage and on this fourth anniversary the following 10 issues are what you need to know about Syria.

1. After 4 years of barrel bombs, the use of chemical weapons, air raids, flattening towns to rubble and the use of militia’s, Bashar al-Assad has failed to halt the rebellion. His army numbered around 300,000 personnel before the uprising and has shrunk by 30-50% through desertions, defections and deaths, according to estimates from analysts, diplomats and security officials. This lack of manpower means pro-government forces have had to concentrate their efforts, focusing on a strategic corridor of territory stretching north from Damascus to the Mediterranean, rather than fight across the whole country. Al-Assad abandoned the north and east of Syria a long time ago. Today al-Assad’s army is no longer capable of large-scale ground operations and like most of the rebel groups, it is seen as unable to win large areas of territory quickly. His army is stretched and they have been stretched since 2012. The scores of senior officers who defected, state by all indications the regime and the army has become an increasingly paranoid and insular force, headed by a small and dedicated core of officers who suspect rampant disloyalty within the ranks. Al-Assad’s strategy is now to dig in, in other words – survival mode. Joseph Holliday, a former US army intelligence officer who now heads the Syria Initiative at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War highlighted the al-Assad regime, “could yet hang on for some time, continuing to wreak havoc on Syria. They went from a mobile strategy pretty early on to basically trying to hold what they could, and that’s a pretty effective way to survive.”[2]

2. Throughout 2013 and early 2014 the rebel groups were launching attacks on Damascus, the country’s capital. But with the entry of ISIS, the dynamics in Syria changed and this has aided the al-Assad regime immensely. ISIS’s presence in Syria can be traced officially to April 2013 when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the merger between his group in Iraq and Jabhut al-Nusra in Syria. The rejection of this by al-Nusra leader Muhammed Joulani led to the creation of ISIS which entered into a protracted battle with al-Nusra and every other rebel group in Syria seizing territory from them. Today, most of the Iraqi-Syrian border is in ISIS hands and much of the north of the country from Deir ar Zour to ar-Raqqa governorate and Aleppo governorate is under ISIS control – although Aleppo is still being contested. When al-Assad’s army was overstretched, ISIS caused a division amongst the rebel groups as it began the conquest of northern areas already under rebel control. This fracture resulted in the rebel groups turning their attention to ISIS giving the al-Assad regime the breathing space it needed. US Secretary of State John Kerry argued in November 2014 that the country’s two sworn enemies were propping each other up. “That assumption is actually based on a misreading of the political reality in Syria. In fact the Assad regime and Isil are dependent on one and other, that’s why Assad has relentlessly bombed areas held by the moderate opposition while doing almost nothing to hinder Isil’s march.” Energy transfers between the regime and ISIS have long been documented, a gas plant in Tabqa, a town in central Syria is believed to have been long run by both ISIS and personnel from the al-Assad regime.[3]

3. The people of Syria rose up against the regime of Bashar al-Assad 4 years ago in order to bring real change to the nation. They fought the regime across the length and breath of the country and held the nation’s armed forces to a stalemate. The rebel groups organized into battalions and groups of battalions leading a guerilla war against the regime. Eventually their lack of capability caught up with them, the lack of heavy weaponry and a constant flow of munitions meant they were unable to topple the regime. It was here some of the groups turned to regional players whilst others turned to international powers for arms. This inadvertently opened the door to foreign interference. In the north of Syria, Turkey has considerable influence over some rebel groups including the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Turkey created the Jabhat al-Shamiya coalition in December 2014 which incorporated three of Turkey’s favored rebel factions — Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, the Mujahideen Army and the al-Tawhid Brigade. Saudi Arabia has been acting as a supply line of Jaish al-Islam, whilst both the US and Jordan have armed the Southern Front.

4. Throughout 2014 the rebel groups who were fighting to overthrow the al-Assad regime have been squeezed from all sides by three different factions. US airstrikes ever since the ISIS declaration of the so called Caliphate have been predominantly aimed at Jabhut al-Nusra within the Aleppo governorate, rather than ISIS controlled al-Raqqa governorate. Both ISIS and the al-Assad regime have spent less time fighting each other and overwhelmingly fighting the rebel groups. Janes intelligence, the prestigious global security firm released data at the end of 2014 that highlighted the number of operations conducted by ISIS and the Bashar al-Assad regime. It found around 64% of verifiable ISIS attacks in Syria during 2014 targeted other rebel groups. Just 13% of ISIS attacks during the same period targeted al-Assad’s forces. It also found al-Assad’s counterterrorism operations, more than two-thirds of which were airstrikes, skewed heavily towards groups whose names were not ISIS. Of 982 counterterrorism operations for the year, just 6% directly targeted ISIS.[4] Despite this the indigenous rebel groups have defeated and absorbed the western backed rebel groups. Harakat al-Hazm, one of the America’s most trusted militias, collapsed in early March 2015, with activists posting a statement online from frontline commanders saying they disbanded their units and folded them into brigades aligned with other larger Islamic groups.[5]

5. For the past two years many of the rebel groups have been fighting each other, as much as they have been fighting the al-Assad regime. Most of the fighting has been by groups who aim to overthrow al-Assad and those that have taken arms from regional and international powers and whose loyalty is seriously questioned. In early 2014, the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazm in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in Idlib were defeated by the indigenous groups alongside Jabhut al-Nusra. The two groups, moderate rebels linked to the FSA, surrendered local towns to al-Nusra. But despite these gains the final stand of the rebel groups appears to be taking place in the country’s second largest city of Aleppo. The rebel groups took over large parts of Aleppo and the governorate around it over two years ago, but since the entry of ISIS and their capture of most of East of Aleppo the rebels have been fighting against the al-Assad regime on one side, ISIS on the other and Iranian backed militia groups on the other. The growing regime pressure on rebel supply lines and the growing threat of ISIS to their rear, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the rebel groups to prevent the encirclement of their forces in the city. While the battle is far from over, the rebels’ lack of support and the multiple threats they face have put them in a desperate position. The evolution of the battle for Aleppo will be a critical indicator of the status of the conflict in Syria, and the fall of the city, should it occur, would swing the momentum of the conflict squarely in the regime’s favor.

6. After 4 years, the West has stopped hiding its true intention of maintaining as much of the Syrian regime and is now openly advocating Bashar al-Assad remains in power and the rebel groups should join his regime in some type of coalition government. The anti-regime rhetoric was always a cover for the regime to quell the uprising in Syria. Ryan Crocker, the former US ambassador to Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, wrote in 2013, getting rid of Mr. Assad is likely to produce “a major country at the heart of the Arab world in the hands of Al Qaeda.” As matters stand ISIS is the enemy and Bashar al-Assad is the moderate who needs to remain in power, otherwise the alternative could be far worse. In the New York Review of Books, Jessica Matthews, outgoing president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote that the U.S. should take advantage of a rare moment of agreement with both Saudi Arabia and Iran and lead an international push for a peace deal that would allow Assad to remain in power but with “most of his power dispersed to regional governors, the prime minister, the parliament, and the military. Though he is a war criminal, Assad’s personal fate matters less at this point than his country’s.”

7. Western nations and their regional lackeys have supported, armed and funded different rebel groups to gain influence over them and to ensure they eclipse the other sincere groups and then enter into negotiations with the al-Assad regime. But this attempt has failed for the moment as all the western backed groups have eventually been driven out by the Islamic minded rebel groups or defeated by Jabhut al-Nusra. When the Hazzm movement, which was central to a covert CIA operation to arm Syrian rebels, collapsed in early March 2015, the US publicised its deal with Turkey to expand its CIA-led training of Syrian rebels, which the US began covertly in March 2013 in Jordan. In October 2014, it was announced that the project would be escalated and a parallel Pentagon programme established. The aim of supporting certain moderate groups over others, is to bolster the moderate groups over the other rebel groups, so the moderate backed rebel groups eclipse the sincere groups in Syria. But the US for the moment has failed to find an opposition with sufficient weight in Syria. The collapse of the Hazzm group underlines the failure of efforts to unify Arab and Western support for so called moderate insurgents fighting the Syrian military.

8. ISIS’s actions ever since it announced its “Caliphate” has caused a fracture in rebel unity. This is because the ISIS state is predicated on an exclusionary method of governance. ISIS maintains social control by eliminating all resistance. Many reports coming out from Mosul and in Syria are of descent being dealt with through punishments, including death. Baghdadi said the following about the Shi’ah: “Al Qaeda wants to forge links with the Shiites. They think the Shiites are their brothers even though they make takfir on all the sahabah and they believe the Quran is corrupted. Yet al Qaeda wants to forge links with them. When Isis takes a town either you leave shism or die. Isis cannot take jizya from them. They are a newly invented religion so no jizya can be taken from them.” Implementing Islam includes their understanding of the creed and as a result many have been accused of apostasy for taking different positions to them. Based on this, courts have been set up and any opposition to ISIS rule or verdicts has been viewed as rebellion and has seen individuals and groups punished with execution. When all the rebel groups were fighting the al-Assad regime and launching attacks on Damascus, ISIS focused on conquering territory, rather than fighting the al-Assad regime. ISIS actions have directly contributed to the fracturing of the resistance to the al-Assad regime.

9. ISIS is now officially the bogeyman for all plots around the world. ISIS is apparently training foreign fighters to return to the west to carry out attacks and it is also training transnational operatives to clandestinely travel to the west and carry out attacks. Ever since the Syrian uprising began over four years ago, some Muslims from the West joined the conflict to aid the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad. The narrative coming from the West is these fighters will receive training in foreign camps and once the conflict is over, these skills will be used on the non-Muslims in the West. The return of foreign fighters from war zones is not a new phenomenon. It is believed that at least 20,000 foreign fighters cycled through Afghanistan between 1979 and 2001. Yet despite the tens of thousands of Muslims who have fought in various conflicts since the 1970s, only a very small percentage have returned to their countries of origin in the West to conduct terrorist attacks. The reality is the training such individuals receive is not conventional training but the skills needed by a guerrilla fighter in a war zone. These include things such as physical fitness, some hand-to-hand combat and the use of small arms, assault rifles, hand grenades and pistols. Very few fighters ever receive advanced training in the types of skills required to successfully conduct a major terrorist attack. This is because one would need to be trained in terrorist tradecraft which is usually the realm of conventional armies and would include skills such as obtaining fraudulent travel documents, clandestine communications, weapons procurement, bomb-making, surveillance, etc. Most foreign fighters who travel to various theatres’ to fight are provided with very rudimentary training.

10. A transnational attack is where an operative is trained abroad and travels to a host country to conduct an attack. For such an attack to be successful a number of hurdles need to be overcome.  The tradecraft elements required to conduct a spectacular terrorist attack include the ability to travel internationally, to operate in a clandestine manner, to conduct surveillance without detection, and to acquire weapons and build bombs. Each of these represents challenges on their own to a militant group. One of the first challenges a transnational terrorist operative faces is traveling to the targeted country without being detected. Whilst state sponsored intelligence agencies have the capabilities to create counterfeit documents, so called terrorist groups do not have advanced document procurement or counterfeiting capabilities. Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups clearly have the intent to attack the west. This is evident in their rhetoric and their repeated attempts to strike. But what these groups lack is the capability to fulfill their intent. They do not possess the tradecraft necessary outside a battle zone. Although all of the various regional jihadi groups have their own training camps where they teach basic military training, most of these groups, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and ISIS, have not demonstrated that they possess operatives with the type of sophisticated terrorist tradecraft needed to transcend across the globe.

Adnan Khan


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12794882 

[2] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/12/10/inside-bashar-al-assad-s-army.html 

[3] http://www.businessinsider.com/revealed-the-oil-middleman-between-the-syrian-regime-and-isis-2015-3#ixzz3Tofs5tDB 

[4] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/syria-isis-have-been-ignoring-each-other-battlefield-data-suggests-n264551 

[5] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/03/01/main-u-s-backed-syrian-rebel-group-disbanding-joining-islamists.html