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You’re losing, Syrian rebels! Take to the hills!

The opposition may have right on its side. But it's taking a pasting

It’s time for the Syrian insurgents to start the trek into the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Not the actual Sierra Maestra in Cuba, of course. It’s a metaphor.

I could just as easily have said that they should begin the Long March.  When the Chinese Communists took a pasting from Chiang Kai-Shek they retreated 8,000 miles to Shaanxi in the Chinese interior. They weren’t ready to win, and they had to go through the trial of the march before they could be reborn as a victorious revolutionary army.

But Mao Zedong took a long view of insurgency. The Syrians are a lot more like Fidel Castro’s people who tried to go straight from the beach to open civil war. They took a pasting from the Cuban Army shortly after landing their boat on the Playa Las Coloradas and hid out in the Sierra Maestra. They fought for almost two years, doing their best to avoid large-scale confrontation with the Cuban Army.

I’m not a fan of Bashar Assad or his regime. I don’t want them to be in power more than one second longer than is necessary. He doesn’t have to go to the Hague for a big flashy trial either: he and Emma could stay on the couch in his Uncle Rifa’at’s place in London.

But right now young Bashar is in a very strong position indeed. The insurgents who would depose him have rushed into open civil war, much the way the Fidelistas did in Cuba. Instead of building their strength in the countryside, however, they rushed straight to the cities. The rebels exposed themselves in Homs and took a pasting. They exposed themselves in Damascus and took a pasting. They exposed themselves in Aleppo and took a pasting.

The Syrian insurgents saw their Libyan counterparts leap from nonexistence to control of Benghazi to control of the capital in weeks with NATO smashing their enemies before them. Without any understanding of revolutionary war they have tried to imitate the Libyans and so far they’ve lost.

Now that they no longer have a base in any major city they will be exposed in the countryside. The Wall Street Journal spins this as an opportunity to demonstrate their competence as governors, which really is something the insurgents have to prove before they can get much support from the Syrian people. The grim reality is that in the open the insurgents will be more easily spotted by the Syrian Air Force and more easily engaged by Syrian armour and mechanised forces.

There’s a reason the rebels have started begging for a no-fly zone.

The rainy season doesn’t begin for ten weeks. In the meantime the insurgents stuck in the farm country between Aleppo and Kilis in Turkey will have to stick to water infrastructure, making them easier to find and destroy. Road movements will be visible to reconnaissance, and using their few antiaircraft missiles will be harder.

Before each urban engagement the insurgents claimed that this was the decisive battle of the Syrian revolution. After their defeat they claimed that they were making a tactical withdrawal. In each case they left the regime behind holding the cities, reduced to smoldering ruin.

They won’t stay ruined for long. We saw how Iranian cement rebuilt South Lebanon after the Hezballah War of 2006. The Islamic Republican Guard Corps will already be sprucing up Homs and Damascus. Aleppo will be next. The implicit message: Bashar may be a bastard, but he’s a bastard who can run the country.

The “Syrian Endgame” headlines we’ve been reading over the past few weeks will have to wait, but we have to hope that preparations for a post-Assad Syria continue.

Some of the insurgents will be able to withdraw into Turkey as the Syrian Army pounds the fleeing rebels.  If too much of the Free Syrian Army goes to Turkey, however, it might be hard for them to get back into Syria when they’re ready.

The insurgents need to learn tactics and logistics, to find some way to unite, and to turn their enormous political capital in the West into victory in Syria. They need to recruit in the refugee camps of Turkey and Jordan.  They need to build a good intelligence network across the country, and most important they need to convince the majority of Syrians that deposing Bashar will not do to Syria what deposing Saddam Hussein did to Iraq.

Bashar may still use the two first-class tickets to London he undoubtedly keeps in a bedside drawer. I’ll cheer when he does. In the meantime, let’s find some mountains.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is Principal at Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy consultancy. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.