The Free Syrian Army (FSA), though under heavy barrage in Homs, continues to provide stiff resistance against President Bashir al-Assad. Damascus’s security forces and elements of the military have proven their loyalty with increasingly violent acts against civilians and rebels. Defections, although much publicized, have not occurred among higher ranking officers or from special units such as those hailing from tank divisions, heavy weapons, or artillery brigades. This is coupled with the fact that these defections have occurred as a trickle, rather than a flood of whole regiments or battalions.
This hurting stalemate is sure to bleed both sides of valuable resources and lives. Several factors have coalesced to ensure that the Syrian uprising will not take place in a fast paced manner.
The Free Syrian Army
The FSA has been touted by Western media as a large, cohesive fighting force owing its numbers to defections from the military. This imaginary narrative is extremely dangerous for those attempting to analyze the situation and for policy makers both within the Arab World and the West. In reality the FSA is a brand, a recognizable and patriotic labeling that is utilized by a variety of armed groups. While the defection of soldiers has bolstered the organization’s strategic capacity, its operations are also undertaken by a large and prevalent civilian contingent. This amateurish factor, in addition to the inability of the FSA to undertake coordinated provincial or national attacks, undercuts its capacity to threaten the existence of the Assad regime.
These operational constraints are compacted by the demographical composition of the ranks of the loosely affiliated FSA groups. The FSA is largely a poor and rural Sunni endeavor, thus it does not enjoy the support of the entirety of Syrian society, especially among the one-third of the populace that belongs to minority identity groups. Given fears of sectarian violence and the proliferation of arms across the region the international community is extremely hesitant to arm the rebels. The FSA’s meager operational capacity and its lack of cross-sectarian and international support ensures that while it will continue to pester Assad’s forces it cannot make any meaningful gains against the Syrian regime.
The Syrian Army and Security Forces
One would posit, that given the relative weakness and disorganization of the FSA, that the Syrian regime could easily route rebel forces. Paradoxically, the Syrian army, strong numerically and highly trained in comparison to the FSA, has largely not taken an active role in suppressing the current uprising. This is due to the fact that under Bashir’s father the army was largely stripped of its internal security duties given a culture of military coups in the region, while the officer corps were filled with Alawites and relatives of the Assad family. High ranking officers were given economic opportunities in the civilian sector in order to placate their diminished role as the security services, loyal to the president and composed of fellow Alawites, were created to ensure domestic submission. While the security services were proficient in keeping track of dissident groups, and putting down localized revolts, the current Syrian uprising is at such an endemic level that they are unable suppress it.
The duty to suppress the revolt has shifted again to the military, which presents its own issues. Bashir is heavily relying on his brother Maher who commands the army’s elite Republican Guard and Fourth Division, the latter of which proved its ruthlessness in the siege of Deraa last year. The reason for this reliance is the fact that the lower ranks of the army are composed of poor rural Sunni soldiers who hail from the areas that are heavily stepped in revolt. These soldiers are not tied to the regime through the same economic and sectarian paradigms as the upper brass. Assad learned early during the uprising that dispatching these soldiers resulted in mass defections. As a result, the military has largely been assigned to the barracks under the watchful eye of the security services and thus unable to provide a decisive blow to the FSA. Given the limited operational capacity of the FSA in congruence with the army’s unwillingness to repress the revolt, the Syrian uprising will for all intensive purposes remain a hurting stalemate.
The Curbing of Sectarianism and the Economic Option
Various factors must coalesce in order to give the FSA a chance to topple the Assad regime. Chief among these intricate details is ensuring that the FSA gains the widespread support of the population. Given that minorities and the Sunni business class still support Assad, either due to fear of the transitional phase or extensive patrimonialism, a diplomatic undertaking must occur to allow for a distancing between the regime and its societal base. The Syrian National Council and the FSA must ensure that sectarianism does not become endemic among rebels. Minorities must be assured that a post-Assad Syria will be inclusive and siding with the revolution is the most feasible option for democratic governance. Coupled with this process should be an increase of sanctions against the Syrian government. Neighboring countries, which have yet to fully implement sanctions, should do so. Cutting these life-lines to the Syrian regime in combination with international sanctions would prohibit the regime to provide economic incentives to Sunni businessmen. In turn, a break in the fiscal link between the regime and the business elite could embolden the latter to put their monetary and political support behind the uprising in order to gain a say in post-Assad Syria.
Alexander Corbeil is a Middle East Security Analyst at The Atlantic Council of Canada.