Many in the press and among the commentators persistently misrepresent the military situation in Syria - always to the detriment of the opposition. Why they do so is a mystery. The misrepresentations don't seem malicious. They seem to originate in mistakes that proceed from an oversimplified, almost impatient view of warfare, as if we have grown unfamiliar with its pace and strategic constraints. Unfortunately the result is to under-rate the achievements and competence of the opposition forces, with the political consequence that these forces seem poor candidates for support. What follows attempts to correct this quite false impression.
As in Libya, where the opposition stalemated its way from Benghazi all the way to Tripoli and back to Sirte, we hear a lot about stalemates. Though the term can legitimately describe briefly static situations, these should not be mistaken for dead-end strategies grinding to a halt. There are, as in any conflict or for that matter any wrestling match, brief, tactical stalemates in Syria. There have never been strategic stalemates so that, of course, Free Syria Army tactics have never produced them.
The haste to call 'stalemate' bespeaks a failure to realize that wars and revolutions generally don't fit within contemporary attention spans. World War I lasted four years. The war in Vietnam, about twenty. The Algerian revolution, about fifteen. The Chinese revolution, about twenty. World War I produced a genuine stalemate in which both sides committed themselves to tactics that literally went nowhere and - more important - were intended to go somewhere. Compare this to Stalingrad, where Stalin's strategy of attrition did indeed produce a tactical stalemate that in turn produced perhaps the greatest victory of World War II.
In this context it is ludicrous to speak of stalemates in Syria, as it was in Libya, except in the mildest and least important sense of the term. The FSA has persistently engaged in the general strategy of striking where it could, first against checkpoints, then against larger targets. It has tried to take and keep ground when it thought it might succeed. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn't. It has made steady progress and never over-reached in a big way - that is, in a way that resulted in important military losses. Naturally at times no progress was made, but again - this is normal. To harp on these phases as stalemates is simply to give the false impression of a bankrupt strategy, as in World War I. That impression, applied to the FSA, is badly misleading.
Syria's 'rag-tag' opposition forces make many mistakes, but no more than nicely dressed generals in regular armies. The constant in most warfare is lack of information: you don't know what the other guy is up to, or how strong he is. You therefore make attacks very much 'on spec' and the elaborateness of your planning should not be mistaken for confidence about the outcome. This is not just a matter of probing attacks designed to test the enemy's strength. Full-scale, grand-strategy attacks are also fully expected to run into severe trouble. Not to advance, to fail to meet your objectives, even to be thrown back, is as much the rule as the exception. It is distinct from a military disaster which more or less permanently diminishes your capacity to fight. This is the case even when your units do not behave as desired and expected.
Not one mistake of the FSA goes beyond the normal reversals of warfare. Certainly, as many allege, there have been failures due to lack of coordination, but they have not been ignominious failures. On the other hand, the impeccably organized forces of World War I were commanded with much idiocy by the least rag-tag generals conceivable, and the scope of the disaster was greatly augmented by the tight command structure of the armies.
Yes, often districts change hands, often at substantial cost, almost always at horrific cost to civilians. This too is quite normal in warfare - and to say so in no way diminishes or dismisses the terrible suffering it produces. Only Godlike knowledge of the exact strengths, weaknesses, morale and positions of the enemy could avoid it. So to speak of mistakes here, while strictly speaking correct, is again misleading. The FSA's setbacks are no reflection on its strategies and even, in most cases, its tactics. Warfare is like that.
Why it matters
The distorted characterizations of the FSA's efforts are not just distortions; they have political implications. They diminish the stature of the FSA. They suggest that the opposition's military efforts are, more often than not, displays of blood-drenched incompetence, bringing misery on the civilian population for no reason. They feed into all the claims that these are rank amateurs, hopelessly disorganized and as unfit to have a say in Syria's future as they are to conduct its revolution. And of course all this militates against the idea that these Keystone-Cop rebels are worthy of support. Yet the FSA, disunited, has done much better than many regular armies, united, and they have shown something like professionalism from the very start. You only had to observe how they used their assault rifles in single-shot mode - unlike the real amateurs in Libya - to know this. Perhaps what made the difference was the involvement of army deserters, from the very start, in the resistance. As I understand it, army units defected from Gaddafi in Libya, but remained separate from the militias who did most of the fighting.
So ignorance of military basics, rife throughout the media, has had a bad political effect. You might ask, who am I to know this? I would reply, who are you not to know it? How is it that these grade-school level basics about war have dropped out of our culture? We seem overprotected from war's realities, and it is serving us poorly.