Another day on Wednesday of headlines distorting and mis-understanding the state of the Syrian conflict….
The New York Times blares, “Momentum Shifts in Syria, Bolstering Assad’s Position”, even as the only analyst cited in the article, Hassan Hassan, notes, “[The regime] is not capable of winning back the country.”
In the Washington Post, the Associated Press — relying on no more than a superficial scan of events, a 29-year-old woman in Homs, and the PR lines of General Salem Idriss, the head of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army and an FSA spokesman, pronounce, “In Syria, Infighting Between al-Qaida Groups and Mainstream Rebels Undermining Revolt”.
There are elements of truth in the stories. The regime has been able to check the insurgency, taking the town of Qusayr near the Lebanese border last month and maintaining daily pressure on opposition fighters in the Damascus suburbs. With the fragmentation of the conflict, factions within the insurgency have fought each other for control of individual towns, and there have been incidents like last week’s killing by the Islamic State of Iraq of a Free Syrian Army commander.
But these are only pieces in a larger mosaic without a single pattern. Consider what also has happened in the last 48 hours:
1. Insurgents claimed the town of Nawa in Daraa Province in southern Syria.
2. The opposition — apparently with the co-ordination of up to 10 brigades, including some who have supposedly been fighting each other — is attacking a key regime point, the “Brick Factory”, in Idlib Province.
3. Insurgents say they have captured territory in Hasakah Province in eastern Syria.
4. Kurdish militia have taken over Ras al-Ain near the Turkish border, defeating insurgents including the Islamist faction Jabhat al Nusra.
After Qusayr was re-claimed by the regime in June, I wrote, “Qusayr did not resolve the Syrian conflict. It only highlighted that resolution is distant. The regime is unlikely to alter this with victory in one town.”
The line in much of the media was far different, however. With few, if any, correspondents on the ground — and often relying on the press releases of suspect sources — they first pronounced a regime offensive on Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. When that did not materialise, they projected that the Syrian military would re-claim all of Homs.
Instead, as Elizabeth O’Bagy pointed out in an analysis this week:
Consecutive large-scale offensives remain difficult for the Syrian government, and the rush to Aleppo was premature. Given the distribution of its resources and the forces required to conduct major offensives at this point, it also remains difficult for the Syrian government to conduct simultaneous large-scale offensives. Although the Syrian government has been able to maintain its current level of operations in Aleppo, it has been unable to launch a major offensive against the city while simultaneously conducting an offensive in Homs. Assad’s forces are too limited to conduct decisive operations in multiple fronts simultaneously, and once they move on from one location, they risk losing it again.
O’Bagy then makes a critical point — far from this being a standard campaign waged by an organised national military, Assad’s fight is now one of a patchwork of units:
Although the regime lacks the capacity to defeat the armed opposition decisively, it has been able to rely on air power and irregular forces to ensure control of Syria’s most populated and economically important districts while ceding less-strategically important parts of the countryside to rebel-control. However, in so doing, the nature of the regime forces has largely changed, now representing less of a national, standing army and more of a coalition of mainly militia forces with heavy weapons, including air power, at their disposal.
The same “patchwork” applies to the insurgency, so rather than having clearly-defined battle lines between two coherent military forces, we watch a curious combination of the “fluid” and the “static”. While clashes and skirmishes move through the country on a daily basis, the overall situation has not really altered.
A map claiming to show regime and opposition gains of territory in 2013:
View 2013 Offensives in a larger map
Aleppo is still split, with the insurgents rather than the regime laying siege and threatening an offensive. Despite weeks of attacks and proclamations, Assad’s men have still not re-taken all of Homs. The regime pounds the Damascus suburbs and carries out ground operations, but cannot quell the opposition there. Much of Syria’s countryside is now lost to Assad, but there is no single insurgent movement — or even two, three, or four — in control of the area from the Turkish border to the oilfields in the east.
I think that it will be economic rather than military pressure that finally dooms Assad, if not his regime, but that is another analysis for another day.
For this day, the caution is that no one is “winning” Syria. Not the elite in Damascus, putting out daily declarations of vanquishing terrorists. Not the insurgency, with some of its leaders alternatively declaring their strength and then warning of collapse if they do not get foreign aid.
And in those false, daily proclamations of military victory, we overlook those who “lose” — the tens of thousands dead, the almost two million refugees, the millions more displaced within Syria.