Source: Wikipedia. Click to enlarge.
I admit to not having been following the Syrian Civil War anywhere near as closely the war in the Donbass.
But with recent rumors of stepped up Russian involvement now being confirmed by videos – and even talk of China possibly sending troops (crazy, but a year ago you’d have said the same of Russians) – it is well past time to remedy this.
The first thing I like to do when it comes to getting up to speed on some conflict or other is studying maps. Just looking at them for an hour or two. Wikipedia has a very impressive data gathering operation that gets updated in real time. In combination with this article listing the military histories for all the major cities and towns you can get a very good idea of the ebb and flow of the conflict through time. Arguably, this is far more useful than reading any number of editorials on the subject.
Some patterns immediately jump out.
Source: Washington Post.
(1) The pattern of regime, FSA/Al-Nusra and ISIS control correlate exceedingly well with the ethnic and religious composition of the geographic areas in question. The coastal Alawite heartlands of Tartus and Latakia, corresponding to the old borders of the eponymous state, are near totally secure. Shi’ite and Christian minorities, such as the Druze, Assyrians, and Armenians, correlate with pockets of regime support – even the Armenian pocket around Deir es-Zor in the desert each of the country, still holding out despite being completely surrounded by the Islamic State. In contrast, Palmyra fell to ISIS this year despite being more than 150km from the nearest area of ISIS control at Kabajeb. Suweida, populated by Dzuze and other minorities, is under Assad’s control in the far south, while neighboring Daraa – entirely Arab Sunni – is held by the FSA.
All this just goes to show the extent to which this is an ethnic, tribalistic war, where the “normal” rules of military theory – where force concentrations are king, and surrounded pockets get liquidated fast – don’t apply as they do even in the Donbass War. I suspect and nothing I’ve read about Syria contradicts this that this is ultimately due to the very low combat effectiveness of Arab armies. Unlike Europeans or East Asians, who have a long tradition of nation-statehood and conscript armies, the Arabs as a people only fight well for clan and God. A dictator like Saddam Hussein or Assad can force them to fight, but not very well or enthusiastically, while a democracy can barely do anything at all – see how ISIS once steamrolled their way to the outskirts of Baghdad, even though the Iraqi forces are armed with modern US equipment that the Syrian Arab Army can only dream about). This has the effect of depressing the value of conventional military power, with the result that warfare becomes a lot like urban gang warfare, just with much fancier military toys and more rape and ethnic cleansing. In this kind of “4GW” confrontrations, the fact that rebel groups and ISIS are much more enthusiastic, more combat effective (due to fighting for clan and/or God instead of a country whose lines were drawn by the French and British), and have the option of blending in with the civilian population in areas where they enjoy support allows them to level out the military capital (tanks, artillery, etc.) superiority of the SAA. Even the SAA has over the past few years bowed to these realities and become much more of a homogenous (primarily Alawite) force and come to rely less on unmotivated conscripts and more on the locally-rooted National Defense Forces.
ORB International poll, Syria, July 2015.
(2) The pattern of control also tallies very well with support for Assad in opinion polls (to a large extent this will of course be an ethnic/religious confound). No area in which Assad has more than 60% support is there a very serious rebel threat. In areas where he has less than 40% support, there is either very intensive fighting or the area is entirely ruled by an opposing faction. Aleppo, the “Stalingrad” of the conflict, registers 39% support for Assad; Idleb, in between Aleppo and Alawite Latakia – and the scene of major rebel successes this year, with just a small regime garrison continuing to hold out in the Shi’ite villages around Fu’ah – registers just 9% support for Assad. Nowin fairness, opinion polls have to be treated with some caution in Syria, because none of the warring factions is exactly very nice to visible dissenters. Still, the fact that Assad registers 27% support in ISIS ruled territories, while the FSA registers 15% in areas held by the government – as opposed to near 0% in both cases – does imply that the fear of speaking one’s mind at least privately is far from total throughout Syria.
(3) More generally, many Western media propaganda/neocon talking points immediately become hollow through this simply map-viewing exercise.
For instance, the idea that Assad isn’t interested in fighting ISIS, or even that he is in some sort of alliance with them. Where the areas under Assad’s control and ISIS border each other, there is intense fighting, e.g. an entire frontline on the approach to Al Salamiyah behind which lie Homs and Hama, and the struggle to relieve the surrounded Kweiris airbase. But by far the biggest challenges the legitimate Syrian government faces right now lies in the areas of Idlib and Aleppo, which apart from being large territories under JaN and FSA control also splinter SAA forces and constitute a conduit for Turkish arms supplies to other rebel formations throughout the country. Focusing attention on this area is just military common sense – and its not like there is any cardinal moral difference between Al Nusra and ISIS anyway (Al Nusra just doesn’t act axe-crazy for the cameras).
Another common talking point that has been raised especially since Russia stepped up its involvement is the claim that Assad’s forces have killed far more Syrians than ISIS. The aim is quite transparent: Since ISIS has so ably demonized itself, associating Assad with them by way of quantitative comparison should be pretty easy to do. And I think it mostly works. I see a lot of people in comments sections raising this point in in that really smarmy, pretentious way that the more intelligent American imperialists adopt to come off as “smart” and “balanced.” Entirely absent of course is context:
- That the SAA is fighting long, grinding campaigns primarily in the heavily built up, urbanized areas of the North-West, while ISIS specialized more in blitzes, typically moving in when its adversaries become mutually exhausted. The latter type of warfare will inevitably produce fewer civilian casualties, regardless of the mass executions and slave markets that ISIS sets up afterwards. But its certainly not account of any greater moral superiority or legitimacy; quite the contrary, in fact.
- That there is no chance of the SAA getting “smart weapons.” Meanwhile, its relative preponderance in military capital – artillery, tanks, helicopter gunships, etc. – is the one thing it has going for it. Since the average SAA soldier is far less motivated and combat effective than his Al Nusra or ISIS counterpart (see above) and since they cannot blend into the civilian population as the various rebels can, of course the SAA has no choice but to make use of its superior firepower so as to least keep up with if not overwhelm the enemy. Not doing so would not only be criminal towards its own soldiers, many more of whom would otherwise die. The question would also quickly become entirely moot since if the SAA was to go soft it would also be quickly defeated, with tragic consequences for the Shi’ite and Christian minorities it is still heroically protecting.
- The not completely irrelevant point that ISIS openly and proudly commits all sort of atrocities harkening in spirit all the way back to the methods of the Assyrian Empire. In contrast, the great bulk of SAA “casualties” are collateral damage from military actions, and even when it comes to the dirty but necessary task of rooting out Islamist sympathizers – who would otherwise tell SAA coordinates to ISIS or Al Nusra, or suicide bomb themselves to ease their advance – it is something that the Syrian regime does in shadowy basements, where any such actions properly belong. For those who still want to play the numbers game, in what way in particular is this different from, say, US methods in Vietnam? (With the exception that it was a voluntary intervention, whereas Assad is merely defending his own country0.
Now in fairness I do know that the neocons have a narrative to keep up and so do their shills in the media, like Michael Weiss who is constantly agitating for aggressive actions to overthrow both Putin and Assad and enjoys huge influence in the media despite having zero knowledge of either Russian or Arabic. Same goes for their dupes and bots on the comments sections. But anyone else seriously arguing that Assad is on a level with ISIS has all of this to address first.
Source: Google Maps.
(4) A single, 153km road separates Palmyra from Kabajeb, the nearest ISIS-controlled area to Palmyra prior to the month-long offensive in July 2015 that led to its capture and other tragic consequences. This area looks like it could be used to film a Mad Max sequel. It should also be exceedingly easy for anyone with a competent airforce with air superiority to make mincemeat of any attack along this route. To the contrary, the kind of out-in-the-open, logistically challenging, and lengthy ISIS operation that should have been one of the easiest to forestall went on right ahead, successfully.
So why didn’t the US with its vaunted air campaign against ISIS do anything?
Because ultimately it is entirely fine with ISIS making advances when it is at the expense of the regime. This is not too surprising, since ISIS is after America’s baby and destabilizing Assad is its entire raison d’etre – as declassified Pentagon documents, Wikileaks, and the intuitions of Syrians themselves have proved over the past few months.
Plus, ISIS is better than Assad anyway. Look at all the hundreds of articles making this point they can’t all be wrong.
The US has an air campaign that is supposedly fast “degrading” ISIS, but there is no evidence of it making any kind of dent in its military capabilities. From its unconditional demands to have Assad step down to its attempts to pressure its NATO allies to block airspace to Russian planes carrying military aid to Syria (Bulgaria obliged, Greece didn’t) the US cannot be considered a sincere partner in wishing peace upon Syria. And that will remain the case so long as the US continues to be ruled by the neocon agenda, even if the actual neocons are now mostly out of power.