By Bilal Y. Saab – It is often said that the battlefield is the most honest place on earth. While the Syrian political opposition is trying to get its act together, it is still fragmented and it could take a while before unity is achieved. Those fighting “in the trenches” – the rebels operating under the Free Syrian Army umbrella – are likely to be more directly involved in shaping the future of the post-Assad order than its divided politicians.
Indeed, what happens on the ground will have more direct consequences on how the crisis unfolds than backdoor political meetings or international diplomacy, which so far has been very timid. To understand the evolution of the military conflict in Syria and whether the rebels are closer to achieving their goal of toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad, I talk to Rex Brynen, a scholar of the Middle East and a military analyst. I have been familiar with Rex’s superior academic work since my days at AUB, but I did not know that he also had a passion for the military sciences and specifically war gaming and simulations, my two obsessions. I first met Rex personally 4 or 5 years ago in a briefing in Washington for an agency in the US government on radicalism in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. It was just me and him in that claustrophobic room with our small audience. Rex is internationally recognized for his work on Palestinian refugees but his interventions in that briefing showed that he was also very well versed in terrorism and radicalization literature. A prolific, serious, and hands on analyst of all things Middle East, Rex is a Professor at McGill University. He has published extensively on the security and politics of the region. We talk in this interview about the military dynamics of the Syrian conflict.
1- Every time the rebels make advances or acquire new hardware, the media is quick to ask the question of whether this is a turning point in the conflict. Having said that, with the recent acquisition by the rebels of surface to air missiles that have downed government air assets, how significant is that and does it constitute a turning point?
Rebel acquisition of significant numbers of MANPADS will undoubtedly limit the effectiveness of the regime’s helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. At least two aircraft already been shot down, and in future others will operate more cautiously, at higher altitude, and therefore with less accuracy. It will make it more difficult for the regime to resupply distant outposts by helicopter or move troops by air. It has also been a significant morale-booster for the opposition.
That being said, I don’t think MANPADS are a “game-changer” in and of themselves. While the regime’s airpower was seen by the opposition as a major challenge, I don’t ever think it was accurate, coordinated enough, or intensive enough to be militarily decisive. The war will continue to be largely fought, and won, on the ground. Here the trend line continues to be very much in the opposition’s favor.
2- There have been reports of acquisition of tanks and artillery by the rebels. Do we know if they have actually used them against government forces? Force-on-force battles favor the government of course given the balance of power but can we get a sense of what kind of strategy the rebels might use that would incorporate these heavy weapons?
Captured armor has been used locally and on a small scale, usually as fire support for attacks on checkpoints or bases. There have been only a few cases of tank-on-tank fighting. Generally the rebels lack the experience, ammunition, and maintenance support to use armor effectively. Tanks are also hard to use in what are often hit-and-run attacks.
More effective use has been made of indirect fire weapons, especially mortars, in attacks on regime installations. I think we’re likely to see greater and more effective use of heavy weapons over time, both as the rebels capture more equipment and as they gain practical experience.
3- How do you analyze Turkey’s request to deploy Patriot missiles along its borders with Syria? Is this a first step toward establishing a no fly zone in that part of Syria or is more limited to Turkey defending itself against incoming fire from Syria?
I think the request for Patriot missiles is largely defensive, intended to deter Syrian aircraft from approaching the border. It also provides some limited defensive capability against Syrian missile attacks, should the conflict ever escalate substantially. While they could be used as part of a limited no-fly zone near the Turkish border, I see no evidence yet that the Turks (or anyone else) intends to impose one any time soon.
4- We all know that Washington is very much concerned about the unintended consequences of supplying the rebels with more advanced weaponry. But there are signs that there could be a change in US strategy in the not so distant future. Is it that difficult to work with Turkish and Jordanian intelligence services to vet the rebels before supplying them with weapons? Why is this presenting itself as an extremely difficult problem?
The concern of weaponry reaching the “wrong hands” is twofold: first, the desire not to increase the general military power of anti-Western, jihadist groups, and second, fear that MANPADS in particular could fall into the hands of those that might use them for terrorist attacks against civil aviation. Rebel groups are divided and loosely structured, making it hard to know who the end user of a weapon will be weeks and months in the future. Smuggling networks leak, and weapons don’t always reach their intended destination. MANPADS fetch a very high price on the black market, raising the risk of supplies being diverted or sold off.
5- Do we have any open source information on the relationship between recent improved military performance by the rebels and upgraded command, control, and communications? Are the rebels getting better at fighting because their commanders can more effectively issue orders, control operations, and communicate with their fighters?
There’s clear evidence of gradual improvement in rebel command and control. Part of that may be to the acquisition of communications equipment and other capabilities. More of it, I suspect, is a combination of battlefield learning and Darwinian selection: rebel brigades with better and more adaptive leadership tend to be more successful, and attract more recruits over time.