Since our last post, just over a week ago, the situation in Syria has further deteriorated at the national, regional, and international levels.
There is mounting unrest within the country. A recent UN Human Rights Council report states that “[t]he situation on the ground is dangerously and quickly deteriorating,” and “[f]urther militarization of the crisis will be catastrophic.”
The level of violence in Syria has returned to the level experienced prior to the initiation of the first peace plan in April. Over 800 people have died in the past week as sectarian killings have become increasingly common.
In a marked escalation in rhetoric, President Assad said Syria is in “a state of war” and that no effort should be spared to achieve victory, Reuters reported. “When we are in a war, all policies and all sides and all sectors need to be directed at winning this war.” He said his government had a duty to “annihilate terrorists.”
The conflict has recently entered a new phase of heavier fighting in the previously secure capital of Damascus. From The National:
“If you had told me a year ago that armed rebels in Damascus would openly be in the street protecting demonstrators and fighting against regime forces, I would never have believed it possible,” said an Islamic cleric based in the Syrian capital.”Now I have seen it with my own eyes, the impossible is happening,” he said.
And according to Reuters:
“It is really bad today across Damascus,” said [opposition activist Susan] Ahmad. “Zamalka [district of Damascus] was like a massacre, but we couldn’t bury all of the martyrs as it is dangerous to be out on the streets and we can’t treat the wounded. There is no medicine.”
The government continues to execute a campaign of arrests that has incarcerated tens of thousands.
The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) is showing signs of improved effectiveness as its numbers increase, its organization improves, and it begins to employ new tactics. In recent days, the FSA has begun attacking high-profile targets in the capital region, according to The New York Times. And CNN reports:
The United Nations and other entities tracking the conflict in Syria noted the increasing clout of anti-government forces in past months.
The [UN] report cites this trend, saying rebel “operations in some locations are improving in efficiency and organization.”
The opposition is growing across Syria and fighting government forces on several fronts. The groups are engaging with government forces in “direct combat” and are attacking military and security facilities, the report said.
“Their increasing capacity to access and make use of available weapons has been demonstrated in recent weeks,” the report said.
It said rebels haven’t gotten “new or more sophisticated weaponry.” But they are using improvised explosive devices “against army and security convoys, patrols and facilities such as military buildings and checkpoints.”
The report said rebel forces “have effectively challenged” the regime’s authority in Damascus, Homs, Hama, Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
For example, it said, the government forces’ control of the country’s borders has been regularly undermined, and cross-border movements of refugees as well as of anti-government fighters appear to be more frequent and fluid.
At least two al Qaeda-linked groups are operating in Syria – Al Nusrah Front, and Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Al Nusrah has claimed credit for multiple suicide attacks and complex attacks on security forces (indicating AQ involvement), while Abdullah Azzam Brigades (which was founded on the orders of Zarqawi and Bin Laden) has announced its support for the resistance. The Free Syrian Army has downplayed the involvement of these groups, or outright claimed they are creations of government security forces as black flag operations.
Saudi Arabia has moved to provide funding for the FSA, according to the Guardian, while Turkey has allowed the establishment of a command center in Istanbul to coordinate supply lines inside Syria.
Defections from the Syrian Armed Forces are on the rise. In a recent five-day period, 33 soldiers, including several high-ranking officers, defected. A Syrian Air Force pilot, a squadron commander, flew his Mig-21 to Jordan. Eight more pilots also defected. Fear of further defections has grounded most of the air force.
On June 22, Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet, significantly increasing the level tension between the two countries.
Describing the Syrian regime as presenting “a clear and present” threat to Turkish security, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan announced that Turkey was changing its military rules of engagement and will now treat a military approach toward its borders by Syria as a potential threat that “will be dealt with accordingly.” He also warned that he would order his troops to attack Syrian army units if they approached the countries’ shared border. In addition, he said his country would offer all possible support “to liberate the Syrians from dictatorship.”
Within days of the downing of the Turkish jet, Turkey had begun sending additional army forces to the Syrian border, including tanks, anti-aircraft units, and troops. It is unlikely, however, that Turkey will go so far as to declare war on Syria or invade it.
With the first UN peace plan dead, a new plan is being worked out. At an international conference in Geneva on June 30, a compromise agreement between Western nations and Russia was reached. The plan called for a UN-backed political transition. However, in a major sticking point, no agreement was reached on what role President Assad would have in the transition.
This plan has little better chance of success than the previous UN plan. Syrian opposition groups immediately rejected it, and President Assad said he would reject any “external solution,” the BBC reported.
At the same time, there is little indication that Western nations intend to intervene with conventional military forces. The preferred option now is to continue covert support, with the possible introduction of special forces, possibly British, US, Qatari, or French, operating from border bases in Turkey, according to Reuters.
Although the situation is deteriorating, there is also little sign that the Assad regime will fall anytime soon. US intelligence agencies have not detected cracks in Assad’s inner circle and its next level. A US intelligence official told Reuters that the military forces of the Assad regime still seem “fairly cohesive” and appear to have adapted to fighting the insurgency. “Both sides seem to be girding for a long struggle,” he said.
The indications remain that this conflict will continue for some time.