Wednesday, November 23, 2011, 8:50 AM
November 23, 2011

The aim of the Sunni army defectors who make up the Free Syrian Army is to sow divisions within the military that will ultimately bring down the Syrian regime from within. A number of foreign players share this agenda, but they are reluctant to provide military cover for an opposition still struggling under the weight of the Syrian security apparatus. A closer examination of the dilemmas faced by the main stakeholders in the conflict reveals how the current dynamics of the conflict leave ample room for error as each tries to read the other’s intentions.

With months of demonstrations failing to dislodge the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, military defectors who make up the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are trying to exploit Alawite-Sunni divisions in the army to bring the regime down from the inside while asking outside powers for military assistance. Though no outside country has intervened in Syria on the FSA’s behalf, a number would like to see the end of the Iranian-allied regime in Damascus. Turkey has been particularly aggressive in condemning the Syrian regime, even threatening to create a buffer zone extending into Syrian territory.

The FSA hopes to convince Ankara that helping Syrian defectors can prevent border instability — Turkey’s primary concern. Meanwhile, al Assad and Iran may use their influence over Kurdish militant proxies as leverage to forestall Turkish involvement. Though the Syrian regime appears for now to be holding together, the confusion surrounding each party’s intentions has the potential to lead to miscalculations and bring about the very situation each player hopes to avoid.

The Free Syrian Army

The Free Syrian Army loosely refers to a group of mid- to low-ranking Sunni army defectors. They are led by Col. Riad al-Asaad, who is believed to be based in Turkey. The FSA claims it has 22 “battalions” of soldiers throughout Syria capable of launching attacks on symbolic targets; in the past week, the FSA has claimed to have attacked an air force intelligence facility and Baath Party offices. The FSA’s leadership has said its main strategic aim is to elicit further defections and, by splitting the army, cause the regime to collapse from within. With Syria’s Alawite-dominated army units concentrated on urban opposition strongholds, the FSA has been able to transmit messages, facilitate cross-border travel and coordinate defections among the mostly Sunni army soldiers manning checkpoints and border posts. The attacks claimed by the FSA so far suggest the group is not receiving arms from outside the country but is waging its resistance primarily using the arms and ammunition with which members defect.

A significant propaganda campaign is part of the FSA’s efforts to seek assistance, but the group is still operating under the weight of Syria’s pervasive security and intelligence presence. In reaching out to countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia that may want al Assad to fall, the FSA has stressed the need for military cover — much like that provided by NATO in Libya, which allowed rebels time and space to develop their resistance in the eastern stronghold of Benghazi. This is why FSA leadership has emphasized the Syrian regime’s allegedly heavy use of the air force to bombard civilians — the FSA hopes to create a justification for humanitarian intervention. (STRATFOR has not seen any indication that the regime has chosen to use its air force against demonstrators, likely out of fear of Sunni air force pilot defections.)

The exact nature of this proposed military intervention is deliberately ambiguous, varying from the implementation of buffer zones extending into Syrian territory to air cover provided by no-fly zones. Though the FSA has sought to avoid creating the perception it is inviting foreign “occupiers” into Syria, the group undoubtedly hopes to bring about a replication of the Libya model of intervention. In the FSA’s view, if the opposition can draw external forces into forming buffer zones in Syrian territory, it will bring them one step closer to receiving the more significant tactical support they are seeking, such as the insertion of foreign special operations forces, to help split the army and topple the regime.

Turkey’s Reluctance

The FSA is having trouble finding military powers willing to intervene. Turkey has been the most vocal in pressuring al Assad, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Nov. 22 calling for al Assad’s resignation and on numerous occasions threatening to implement a buffer zone extending into Syrian territory. Turkey also openly hosts FSA leadership, along with other defectors who have fled into Turkey. However, while Ankara has a broad spectrum of options for supporting the opposition from its own side of the border,  Turkey has not indicated it will follow through on its threat of military intervention.

Rather than deal with the near-term security implications of hastening al Assad’s fall, Turkey prefers to gamble on the regime’s inability to crush the resistance. Turkey could use a protracted political crisis in Syria to cultivate an opposition to Ankara’s liking, while avoiding direct involvement. The risk for Turkey is that al Assad will survive the crisis with Iranian aid. But Turkey also wants to avoid the near-term threat of becoming vulnerable to Syrian and Iranian militant proxy attacks, especially as the country has recently seen a significant rise in Kurdish militant activity.

Turkey’s primary interest in Syria is to ensure that instability there does not cause a refugee crisis or encourage Kurdish separatist activity within Turkey’s borders. Any eventual military intervention by Ankara — and its absorption of the associated risks — would be driven mainly by these concerns and not by the welfare of Syrian citizens. The United Nations estimates that roughly 7,600 Syrians currently live in Turkish refugee camps, but Turkey does not face an imminent crisis from thousands more refugees flooding across the border. This is largely because Syria has concentrated military crackdowns in opposition strongholds further south in the cities of Homs, Hama and Daraa.

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Constraints in Creating a Refugee Crisis

The FSA could try to spur Turkey to militarily intervene by creating just such a refugee crisis. By focusing activity in and around the northern strategic cities of Aleppo (an opposition stronghold) and Idlib, the FSA could draw harsher crackdowns by the Syrian army that would send civilians fleeing toward the Turkish border. This would also fixate Syrian forces on one location while thinning out the concentration of forces in other areas where the FSA may be trying to operate.

Similarly, the FSA could attempt to draw Jordan into the Syrian conflict by provoking stronger crackdowns in the southwest, where Syrian forces have concentrated much of their strength since the beginning of the uprising. Rumors circulated in the past week that the Jordanian government was also contemplating a “safe zone” on the Syria-Jordan border in the event of a refugee crisis, but a STRATFOR source in the Jordanian government strongly denied this. At the same time, the source said Jordan might have to contemplate such a measure if tens of thousands of refugees came across the border and if Jordan’s forces were augmented by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops.

This is unlikely in the near term. An estimated 3,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan, and the Jordanian government is just now starting to set up refugee camps. Jordan does, however, share an interest in weakening the al Assad regime. STRATFOR has received indications from Syrian sources that GCC money and supplies have moved through Jordan to opposition forces in Daraa and the Damascus suburbs. But despite significant opposition activity near the Jordanian border, the refugee flow in the south has not reached the level that would warrant a Jordanian intervention, and Amman likely will continue to exercise caution when it comes to escalating its limited involvement in Syria.

While the FSA needs to accelerate a crisis to compel outside intervention, potential interventionists have a strategic interest in staving off such a crisis. Though Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States all share an interest in supporting the Syrian opposition and sowing rifts within the regime, none appear ready to step up their involvement. Should a neighboring country like Turkey (or possibly Jordan) detect that the FSA is trying to create a refugee crisis on its border, that government could take measures to restrict FSA activity on its territory to avoid being led toward military confrontation with Syria. In the meantime, it remains unclear whether the FSA can survive without a refuge near the main areas of resistance and solely with the weapons taken when they defected, while at the same time trying to lure the Syrian army into intensifying its crackdowns.

Al Assad’s Dilemma

Syria and Iran want to prevent further support from reaching Syrian dissidents by making clear to Turkey that there are repercussions for trying to split the Syrian regime. The most direct way to capture Turkey’s attention is through Kurdish militancy. Syria and Iran may not have the ability to directly orchestrate attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party core based out of the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, but they can potentially exploit splinter factions. The Turkish government takes this threat seriously and it is likely a major factor in Turkey’s reluctance to escalate its confrontation with Syria. But Syria and Iran would also need to exercise a great deal of caution — using Kurdish militant proxies could inadvertently give Turkey a compelling reason to intervene in Syria.

Al Assad’s strategic interest is simple: to ensure the survival of the regime. This is an interest shared by Iran, which needs Syria to complete an arc of influence running from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. Though the Alawite-dominated forces are so far holding together, they are being stretched thin trying to maintain intensive security operations across the country. This strain does not bode well for the regime’s ability to bring an end to the crisis soon. At the same time, the amorphous FSA does not appear able to threaten the Syrian regime without significant outside help. This dynamic gives Turkey and others time to develop a more coherent strategy on Syria, but it will leave the FSA in a tenuous position as it attempts to get its insurgency off the ground with limited foreign backing.

Copyright 2011 STRATFOR.


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