The Syrian Civil War: An Interview

Editor's Desk

Mitchell A. Belfer

The Syrian Civil War: An Interview

Interview Questions by Emil Souleimanov (Assistant Professor, Dept of Russian & East European Studies at the Institute of International Studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences,Charles University in Prague) Interview Answers by Mitchell A. Belfer(Editor in Chief, Central European Journal of International and Security Studies)

Internal Dimensions in Syria

Souleimanov

What does the current security situation in Syria look like? Is anything known about the situation in particular places; regions, towns, particular neighbourhoods, border areas, including the movements of the army and rebel units, Mukhabarata, various opposition groups?

Belfer

It seems that, like in most conflicts, the first victim of Syria’s civil war – and I think at this stage ‘civil war’ is an accurate term of depiction – is truth. As a result it is very difficult to distinguish between accurate information and that which is manipulated for propaganda purposes. However, there are a few areas of the country where the game of armed cat-and-mouse is visible; where rebel militaries – I use the term rebels because ‘opposition’ is nonsensical, and I use the plural ‘militaries’ since there are nearly twelve different sets of rebel paramilitary structures, each with its own ideology and command, control and communications structures loosely associated to each other by strategy not objectives – are battling against the Syrian Arab Army’s (re: government forces) regular and irregular forces. With the exclusion of spill-over into Lebanon, these can be divided into three categories: Northern, Southern and Central.

     Northern

Perhaps the most important area is a string of cities, towns and villages stretching from (approximately) 30 kilometres north north-east of the Alawite-majority coastal city of Latakia. Starting in Salma and heading east over Idlib, Saraqib, further north-east to Aleppo, Azaz, Marea and then due east to Ar Raqqah on the banks of the Euphrates River, with a multitude of strategic enclaves and villages in-between. It is important that this area offers high peaks, ample water sources and is within marching distance of Turkey and is therefore an ideal location for the rebels to commence their regular armed manoeuvres. This strip (280 km in length, 80 km in width) essentially stretches from Syria’s Mediterranean coast to the Euphrates River and forms the main area of operations for rebel forces. Many of the towns and cities have been – and some still are – completely under the control of rebel military forces. This has also meant that Syria’s Arab Army and air-force have been most active in the area. The rebel attacks, government sieges and eventual successful counterattacks in Aleppo, Azaz, Ar Raqqah and Idlib reveal the extent to which this part of the country is engulfed in a geographically limited, though intense, civil war. Additionally, this is the area of Turkey’s proposed ‘humanitarian corridor’ which would establish an armed buffer zone deep into Syrian territory where would-be refugees could be taken care of without having to cross the international frontier and join the tens of thousands of Syrians already in Turkey.

When speaking of the northern areas of it is essential to note the status of Latakia, a city and region which is proximate to Syria’s main conflict areas though has not experienced high levels of violence. This seeming anomaly is due to the fact that Latakia is home to the majority of Alawites in Syria (12% of the entire country) and the government has redoubled efforts to secure the area. However, Latakia is not homogenous – there is a Christian, Sunni and Ismaeli enclave in the region – and did experience some minor demonstrations early in 2011. There is a rumour that if Aleppo and/or Damascus were to fall to the rebels, the Alawites from around the country would gather in Latakia, armed and motivated, and stage their last battle for the purpose of establishing an independent Alawite state (as there was in the 1920’s as part of the French mandate) or martyr themselves in the attempt.

     Southern

In the Southern regions of Syria, there has been scarce rebel activity and any attempts at organising paramilitary forces have been both detected and, ultimately crushed by a combination of Alawite ‘shabiha’ (armed youth gangs) and Mukhabarat (secret police) and supported by regular police and military units. As a result, the situation to the South – in contrast to the north – does not resemble a civil war, but rather a brutal crackdown on civilian opposition. But there are connections and intersections between the two movements with several rebel militiamen attempting to militarise the near constant demonstrations in the towns and villages in the south. Additionally, the ‘refugee corridor’ between Daara, Syria and Al-Ramtha, Jordan has transformed into a tinderbox: nearly sixty-five thousand refugees have crossed into Jordan via this corridor which has resulted in Syrian redeployments to the area to stem the flow of refugees and arrest those deemed enemies of the state. Throughout May, June and July 2012 there were no fewer than eleven instances of cross-border shooting as Syrian forces attempted to disperse crowds of would-be refugees. In one instance, Syrian bullets were responsible for casualties in Jordan which prompted the latter to return fire and thus commencing a five hour cross-border gun battle (02 August 2012).

     Central

The battle waging in the central regions of Syria are a mixture of opposition demonstrations, terrorism (state and non-state) and more conventional warfare between rebels and the Syrian Arab Army. This is a reflection of the importance of the area since it houses the main political centres, economic activities, and critical resources. In fact, the civil war raging in the central parts of the country may be termed the ‘M5 Motorway War’ since the main battles seem to be over commandership of this vital ground line of communication and transportation. Towns and cities such as: Duma, Darayya, Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo are connected by the M5 motorway and the Syrian government has gone to great lengths to keep it free of rebels. This helps to explain the attention Syria’s military has paid to Homs, situated roughly in the middle of the M5 between Aleppo and Damascus. If the regime were to lose Homs the country would, essentially, be severed in half.

External Dimensions in Syria

Souleimanov

Is there any up-to-date information regarding the loyalties, preferences and activities of involved religious, ethnic, clan groups, their attitude to the Assad regime and the opposition groups?

Belfer

It is very hard to assign loyalties to any particular ethnic, religious or political group, the country is too fragmented and loyalties are too over-lapping. Certainly, it is clear that the main fault-lines run along Alawite-Sunni lines, but these are very ill-defined and, also, do not account for the entire population of modern Syria where Armenians, Kurds, Catholics, Orthodox, Jews, Shia, Palestinians, Druze, Turkey Alevi, and members of the Ahl-e-Haqq, dot the socio-political scene though have not been widely discussed over the past eighteen months. It is clear however that sectarianism is producing sub-nationalism and each of the above mentioned communities, rather than actively joining in the fighting between Alawite-dominated security forces and Sunni-dominated rebel groups, has sought to reaffirm its own ethno-nationalist identity reinforced through enclaves. Indeed, thousands of people – which have lived a multicultural existence until now – are finding their way back to areas where ‘their’ ethno-national group forms a local or regional majority. Certainly there are exceptions to this, but this is the rule for the time-being.

Souleimanov

What does the anti-Assad opposition movement currently look like? Is there any information regarding particular sections involved in the opposition movement (and Free Syrian Army in particular), any names of key figures, their goals, internal conflicts of interests and coalitions, links to external actors, ideological background, and situation in the movement?

Belfer

While there are roughly twelve different rebel groups which have taken up arms and about six which have attempted to maintain pressure for reform via non-violent demonstrations, the particular individuals and structures continue to confound researchers and thus I am not able to further articulate. I would however, like to stress that the entire political spectrum is represented in Syria such as: communists, moderate-leftists, Shia ‘Twelvers,’ al Qaeda, Kurdish nationalists, secularists, Baathists and Salafists, to name a few. While there has been an attempt to streamline all the movements under one Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner, this has been largely unsuccessful.

Souleimanov

There has been much talk recently about the support provided to the FSA inter alia by Turkey, the US, UK, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Is there any evidence supporting this? Who, by what means, to whom, and for what reasons is support and assistance being provided to the anti-Assad movement?

Belfer

Again, this conflict is replete with murky corners and clandestine activities; there is no clear evidence – aside from anecdotal – of any military support from Turkey, the US, UK, Qatar and/or Saudi Arabia. That said, and keeping in mind the official declaration by Iran as to its support for the Assad regime, the interests of the aforementioned are tied-up with the FSA and the removal of the Assad regime, so it is likely that support is forthcoming (if it has not already begun).

Souleimanov

Is there any information indicating that Turkey and/or Western powers are planning to carry out a military operation in Syria?

Belfer

There is no clear information, but there are many indications. For example, Syria’s downing of a Turkish air-force jet which ‘strayed’ into Syrian airspace. This was not a regular aerial mishap; it was a Turkish test of Syria’s air-defence systems. At the same time multiple countries (France, the UK, the US, Turkey, etc.) have spoken of the need to construct ‘humanitarian corridors’ – essentially buffer-zones – on Syrian territory to house and protect refugees. Such are impossible without establishing No Fly Zones. Hence, it is assumed that if such corridors are constructed, military actions to keep the skies clear of Syrian attack helicopters and jets would be needed.

Souleimanov

Is anything known about the involvement of Al Qaeda fighters in the opposition movement?

Belfer

There have been many rumours and a few flags waving during key battles and after terrorist attacks.

2020 - Volume 14 Issue 2