If You Are Not Beating Assad, Then You’re Not Beating Assad

In his Times of Israel blog, Marc Goldberg throws down a gauntlet to the free peoples of the West.  He challenges us to help the Syrian insurgency to achieve the potential of a democratic Syria that is not Iran’s catspaw.

Farid Ghadry exposes the pathos of the suffering Syrians in his blog.  The idea that we could possibly fold our arms and let Assad slay with impunity is repugnant, he says.  And he’s right.

Would that we could pick up the gauntlet and fight on to victory over Assad and all those like him.  The difficulty is that Marc Goldberg is challenging states that are not cowardly in the face of Assad’s regime.  He is challenging states which are still licking their wounds after the last time we faced a moustachioed tyrant with blood on his hands.

Homs graffiti. Holding out to the bitter end in Homs meant a pulverised city but an Assad victory (Photo credit: Flickr, Freedom House CC-BY 2.0)

One strategic lesson we brought out of Iraq is that it’s easy to envision some Middle Eastern country peaceful, a functioning liberal democracy.  The hard part is getting there from here.

The Syrian insurgents took on, with our encouragement, a modern industrial state.  The state in question is more militarised than most.  It is, in fact, a state structured in its every detail to prevent the success of insurgents.

According to Russian military thought, a modern industrial state cannot be defeated through a single decisive strategic success.  Rather, it must be defeated through the artistically sequenced application of (successful) strategic action. 

Since the insurgency began two Springs past, the rebels have not had a single strategic success.

The insurgents, with much help from outside, have not managed to create an axis running southward from their safe base in Turkey.  The North-South corridor running through Idlib, Hama and Homs might have cut Damascus off from the coast, but it doesn’t.  The Mediterranean ports are in Assad’s hands as are the major airfields.  Syria’s air defence is intact.  If we Europeans wanted to impose a no-fly zone we couldn’t.  If we wanted to secure supply lines for heavy weapons ammunition we couldn’t.

Map of rebel activity in Syria as at 25 June 2013
The rosy glow of areas where the rebels can operate gives a false picture: everything that matters is in Government hands. (Map by Evan Centanni: CC BY-SA)

Maps of Syria show that the insurgents operate freely in the Euphrates Valley, which is a long-term problem for Assad, but not an acute problem.  They show that the insurgents can operate in the countryside, but not in cities and not on the coast.  This is not winning the war for them.

The insurgents have so far suffered strategic defeat after strategic defeat.  Propping them up to take even more of a pasting is not a kindness, and it does not bring closer the day when Assad can be packed off to a dacha in the Russian countryside.

When I wrote that we need to let Assad have his victory I made it clear that the insurgents need to continue their fight, with appropriate support, but not the way they’re doing it now.

This is not to say that Assad is destined to rule forever.  He could wake up tomorrow to find a pair of airline tickets on his bedside table, and leave some other ‘Alawi ruler to continue the fight.

Putin could cut him loose tomorrow, an option he opened for himself by moving Russia’s naval flotilla out of Tartous.

Grinding on against Assad in hope of a miracle or a far-off victory by attrition is not, however, a moral way to fight.  The end does not justify those means.

They need to withdraw, restructure, re-equip.  They need to subvert the Syrian Army enough to get senior commanders to bring their brigades and divisions over to the rebels.  They need to turn their focus away from eating their enemies organs.  They need to find ways to win that will not demand heavy weapons that need secure highways to supply them with ammunition.

Only then will the rebels be able to come back and apply that series of strategic shocks that will bring the Ba’ath Party down.

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.
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