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Syrian rebels, I wouldn’t start from here

We owe it to the Syrian people to train them and help them overthrow their dictator using the kind of protracted methods that the Taliban uses against us to such good effect in Afghanistan

If I were going to try to overthrow the Syrian government I wouldn’t start from here. Revolutionaries in Syria need to learn their job before we in the West can expect them to win.

Revolution used to be a long, methodical process. The famously impatient Fidel Castro rejected Mao Zedong’s advice for an effective but drawn out insurgency as too slow for hot-blooded Latino Americanos. Even so, it took him three years to get from the Playa los Coloradas to the presidential palace in Havana. Ho Chi Minh adapted Mao’s theories to Vietnam and he took more than 30 years to get from French colony to unified state.

Undertaking insurgency was once a grim and serious thing. One had to leave a warm house to live in the bush, to endanger one’s friends and relatives, to stake one’s life, one’s fortune and one’s sacred honor (as one group of insurgents put it). The reasons had to be powerful and the chances of success had to be great.

Mao’s theories demand a lengthy period of organisation, tight ideological discipline, formidable operational security and a willingness to apply brutal violence even to noncombatants. Only then do the insurgents begin to replace the authorities, setting themselves up as a credible alternative. Small armed actions to demonstrate potency are permissible at this stage, but open warfare is held in reserve for years until the decisive moment.

In Libya we in the West picked up a different template and offered it to the insurgents there: Start a revolution, shoot a lot, start losing and let NATO loan you a modern air force to help you win in a few months.

It wasn’t a new template. We suggested it to the Marsh Arabs in 1991, but then held back the air force and let Saddam Hussein slaughter them. We used a variation on it in Bosnia and Kosovo a few years later. But in Libya we really pushed the boat out. We recognized the Libyan insurgents as the legitimate government before they controlled anything outside Greater Benghazi.

International recognition, as any Palestinian will tell you, is hard to come by. Most governments withhold recognition of a revolutionary government until they control at least a significant portion of the country, if not the capital city. Yet the National Transitional Council in Libya had recognition almost before there was a National Transitional Council.

My friends in senior posts in NATO armies and intelligence services said that we had to act quickly to avert a massacre in Benghazi. At the time one might have said that we had to prevent another Hama massacre. Now, of course, we’d say that we need to prevent a Homs massacre.

We didn’t choose to prevent the Benghazi massacre by telling the insurgents to go home and start studying Mao or the IRA. We prevented the massacre by attacking the Libyan armed forces from the air until the insurgents were able to get toTripoli.

The Syrian National Council was recognized by the US and UK, among others, with such blinding speed that they have scrambled to introduce themselves to each other. The Council’s control over the Free Syrian Army is only marginally more tenuous than the Free Syrian Army’s control over the Free Syrian Army.

Hoping for a Libya-style outpouring of external support, the Syrians took up arms. Why not? The best result would be overthrowing Assad by force of arms. The worst result would be losing at the tactical level but, like the Libyans, achieving strategic victory with the assistance of NATO  and the Qatar Emiri Air Force. Compared with hiding in cellars for years while Assad’s intelligence agencies tortured their relatives, the choice was a no-brainer.

There were calls for arming the Syrian insurgents in Homs, but the requirement was far too great. The people in Baba Amr were under attack by tube and rocket artillery, tank guns and mortars. Cases of Kalashnikovs would do them no good. Arming them to fight the Syrian regular army would require artillery, tanks and mortars, close air support and competitive target acquisition technology. Providing ammunition for these would be a significant commitment of logistics. This before the Free Syrian Army had a command structure.

Like the Marsh Arabs, but unlike the Libyans, nobody came to rescue the Free Syrian Army.

The impotent squawking of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross did not stop a replay in Homs of the Massacre of Hama.

The astonished press of the world raged that their representatives in the town were suffering from the bombardment just as though they were ordinary people.

The ICRC demanded daily breaks to permit the enemies of the Assad regime to leave their graves before they could be buried. The Assad regime preferred to slaughter their enemies.

Overthrowing brutal dictators is a noble aim, and the plucky Syrians who risk their lives to oppose the Syrian Arab Army deserve their chance. But unless we in the West are prepared to pit NATO air forces against the Syrian air defense, we owe it to the Syrian people to teach them and help them overthrow their dictator using the kind of protracted methods that the Taliban uses against us to such good effect in Afghanistan.

And now we wonder how to convince Bashar Assad that the tide of history has turned against him, that the Arab Spring narrative has condemned his dictatorship to the ash heap of history. We wonder how to crown the leader of the insurgents, as soon as one emerges.

I wouldn’t start from here.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is a core partner in Nusbacher Associates, a strategy think-tank. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom and was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.