Thursday, April 25, 2013

A disagreement with @Brown_Moses

NOTE:  After point #6, this post cites a fake twitter account.  I'm leaving it as it is as a warning to others to be careful of sources.  Unfortunately the claim about progress in Daraa at the time of writing must stand.

@Brown_Moses (Eliot Higgins), a genuine expert on arms identification in Syria, speaks of the 'Aleppoisation of Southern Syria'.   By this he means that 

Since the beginning of this year opposition groups in the south of Syria have begun to make significant advances...  Previously poorly equipped, the arrival of weapons purchased from Croatia by Saudi Arabia... has appeared to play a major part in these advances, with many of these major gains accompanied by videos of these weapons in use.

I don't know this to be false, but I do believe it's unfounded.   This matters.    Brown Moses' claims, despite their careful formulation and measured tone, suggest that the West & its allies are now stepping up to the plate and delivering serious military aid to the Syrian opposition:  journalists frequently take his observations to indicate a 'flood' of arms is reaching the rebels.   And the aid is said to make a big difference:  Brown Moses goes beyond identifying and tracking arms to an assessment of the military situation in the South.

The assessment is optimistic.  Croatian arms are said to have played a 'major part' in 'significant' advances, conjuring up prospects of a well-equipped push to greater and greater victories in the South and, one would have to expect, a powerful thrust towards Damascus.  This is the sort of picture that encourages commentators to worry more about the aftermath of the uprising - arms proliferation, creeping Islamist extremism - than about what's needed to counter Assad's murderous assaults right now.

What then of the basis for these attitudes, the notion that Croatian arms have opened the door to increasingly impressive victories?   I can't help thinking of George Bush's comical, infamous 'Mission accomplished".   Although there have indeed been some important successes in the South, especially in Daraa, Brown Moses' account rests on slender evidence.   Here's why:

1.   According to some Syrians,  the régime withdrew important forces, sometimes characterised as 'élite', around the time of the opposition victories.  This alone could almost explain the events.

2.   Brown Moses' account involves Croatian weapons as a sort of catalyst:  he thinks, not that they were sufficient on their own, but that they enabled the opposition to effect at least one important arms capture in the region.   But there is no direct evidence that Croatian arms were decisive in that role.   There are videos of Croatian arms in use, but none in which they clearly made the difference.   This compares with, for example, some video evidence from other areas which show captured armor playing a crucial part in the taking of important bases.

3.   The qualitative significance of the Croatian weapons is unclear.  Unlike some journalists, Brown Moses himself does not claim they are particularly 'advanced'.   But they're not.   There are no modern anti-tank weapons and the anti-aircraft MANPADS are of very limited use against anything but low-flying helicopters.   This doesn't itself preclude them being game-changers, but it diminishes the chances that they are.

4.   There is great uncertainty about the quantity of weapons that actually reached opposition hands.  Croatian weapons do appear frequently in videos, but not together in large numbers.   However they do appear in large numbers in a régime video - captured or intercepted.   So we know that not all the weapons got through, and we don't know how many were even sent across the Jordanian border.

5.   Equally important, we don't know how much ammunition was delivered with the weapons, or how quickly it has been expended.   Since we also haven't heard of any resupply, it's quite possible that the Croatian weapons have become less, not more useful as the fighting proceeds.  Brown Moses notes the recent arrival of some rocket launchers, but this of course tells us nothing about the replenishment of ammunition stocks.  There have been no reports of new ammunition shipments, and for some of the Croatian equipment, there might not be a lot of sources for resupply.  Since the Croatian government was apparently so alarmed by revelations of the shipments that it pulled its peacekeepers from the Golan, it's unlikely the channel remains open.

6.   Perhaps most telling, the progress that these weapons are supposed to have enabled, has not gone quite as expected.   In early April, there were predictions* (again, Brown Moses did not make them) that Daraa (the city, not the province) would soon fall and the road to Damascus would open.  Brown Moses' account does require, I think, a clear pattern of increasing successes.   But progress has slowed dramatically and the régime still has plenty of clout in the area.   One activist, @leeh786, paints an excruciatingly painful scene:

I'm sorry for my disappearance. Every day here just gets worse. The shelling and counter-assault by the regime on Daraa is intensifying.  Hence the reason why progress in Daraa has been slow lately... Along the border with Jordan 10 rotting corpses were found with their hands tied. 5 children, 1 old man, 1 middle-aged man and 3 females. Went past a village completely destroyed. Literally nothing left but rubble. A family refused to leave. Welcome to my once-beautiful Syria.  [22 April 2013]

The military aspect of this horror compares unfavourably with Aleppo, where the opposition seems to maintain an agonizingly slow but nevertheless distinct momentum.   So it is not clear that the effect Brown Moses attributes to Croatian arms actually exists.

Brown Moses, I repeat, could still be right, and I certainly don't question his motives.  It's also quite possible that, for a variety of reasons, the régime will eventually be defeated in the South.  But I do question the wisdom of too much enthusiasm about the Croatian arms and their effect.   We still hear, across Syria, opposition distress about arms supplies, and  especially of ammunition.   Given the uncertainties surrounding these supplies, even in the South, nothing should encourage overconfidence about the opposition's material strength.   Any suggestion that Croatian arms have put the opposition 'on a roll' could have truly disastrous consequences.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Al Qaeda, Jabhat al Nusra, and Syria's future

Someone in Iraq said something and someone in Syria said something else.  The Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda announced that Jabhat al Nusra (JAN) had 'merged' with then, and a Jabhat al Nusra spokesman made an ambiguous but vaguely positive response.  These announcements caused a great stir.  That's not just because of the Al Qaeda name, but also because Jabhat al Nusra has gone beyond words in its avowed intention to establish a radical Islamic state in Syria.

I can't evaluate Jabhat al Nusra's real intentions or the extent to which they've advanced them, much less what they would do after the fall of Assad.  I don't know what would be prudent vigilance against dangerous extremists, and what would be counterproductive over-reaction.  However I am sure about one thing:  JAN cannot take over a post-Assad Syria.  I know this from uncontroversial facts.

These are not facts about the uncertain situation inside Syria.  There, on the one hand, JAN is outnumbered there by the FSA and it's agreed that many JAN adherents joined to fight Assad, not to establish a Sunni extremist state.  (Some Sunni Islamist groups have emphatically rejected the merger announcement.)  On the other hand, no one can say whether JAN's forces would be willing to fight their current allies.  But I hope JAN would ask whether it could win such a fight.

However you assess the capacities of the FSA, it's clear that the international situation tells entirely against the prospects of a JAN victory.  That's because very thing which has blocked international aid against Assad, would favor international aid against JAN.   This holds whether you look at Syria's neighbors or at the non-regional powers.

The non-regional powers

These countries have either supported Assad or been deterred from opposing him due to obstruction in the UN and fears of arms proliferation.  The obstruction vanishes if JAN becomes the enemy.  China and Russia are deeply concerned about Islamic extremism - indeed this is one reason they support Assad - and would be delighted to see JAN crushed.  None of the me-too leftist states like Venezuela or Cuba or Vietnam would feel any differently.

The West, of course, is violently opposed to anything like JAN.  So are Shia Iran and its enemies, the Gulf States:  those who love to trace Al Qaeda back to Saudi Arabia need to remember that the Saudi régime has always been a prime Al Qaeda target.

The neighbors

What then of Syria's neighbors?  Israel needn't even be discussed.  In Lebanon, given Sunni support for the FSA, every faction including the most powerful, Hizbollah, is opposed to anything like JAN.  In Turkey, all the forces that make intervention currently problematic - the non-Muslim minorities, the Kurds, the military, the secularist opposition parties - are hostile to Islamist extremism.  Jordan's entire existence has been one long love affair with the West.  The government of Iraq is the prime enemy of JAN's Iraqi allies.

The consequences

Given the absolute unanimity and unity of nation-state opposition to JAN, it's not hard to see what would happen in the event of a conflict between JAN and the FSA.

Consider supply routes first.  JAN would have exactly one source of supply, its underground in Iraq.  However the FSA would have direct or indirect air support and in that sense complete mastery of the air.  This mastery would involve much more advanced air forces than Assad's; JAN's anti-aircraft resources would be utterly inadequate.  In these circumstances, there is no chance at all the JAN could retain control of border posts on the Iraq frontier.  This means that its sole source of supply would be cross-border smuggling, closely monitored by Western satellites and drones.  The seizures of régime arms that now provide much of the rebellion's material would have ended.  In these circumstances, adequate resupply would be impossible.

What support might the FSA expect?  Direct intervention on the ground would be possible though probably unwelcome.  But as far as equipment goes, pretty much anything useful would be available.  The one type of weapon the West does not want to provide, MANPADS (portable anti-aircraft missile systems) would offer no advantage in a fight with JAN, so the big source of arms proliferation fears becomes a non-issue.

In a confrontation with JAN, the FSA would benefit from advantages unimaginable today:  unlimited supplies of anything it liked and strong support on all of Syria's frontiers.  It would be fighting an adversary currently about one-third its size, cut off from advanced weapons and utterly lacking in reliable supply routes.  It would benefit from air superiority established by itself or, more likely, its allies.  All Syria's religious minorities would at least have to see the FSA as the lesser evil.

The idea that JAN, in these circumstances, had any chance of sustaining itself in Syria, let alone conquering the country, is a non-starter.  Its situation would be much worse than today's.  Internationally, it would face not only NATO or the West or some powerful neighbors but, effectively, the whole world.  It would not be attacking a hated dictatorship, but former allies that had overthrown a dictatorship.  It would be fighting, not in a region few nations care about like Somalia or Mali, but in a country to which the 'great powers' assign great importance.  Its well-informed enemies already have abundant resources and logistics in place - this is not Afghanistan.  It is awful to think of civil war following the fall of Assad, but hopefully these realities will prevent just such a conflict.

This is not speculative punditry but an inventory of the obvious.  It makes no arrogant assumptions about the hearts and minds of Syrians; it claims no insight into the corridors of power.  It builds on two things - the existence of the FSA and the long-standing, public, well-established policies of nation-states.  This seems a solid basis for optimism about the power of Al Qaeda in Syria.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A proxy war? The weapons of the Syrian revolution

Recently there have been claims that certain weapons, mostly from Croatia, are 'game-changers' for the Syrian resistance. I don't know what weapons fit that description, not only because I'm no military expert but also because it's unclear that the game has changed. For quite some time, hard-fought rebel advances have been punctuated by important successes and usually lesser reversals. Certain weapons beyond the ever-present assault rifles seem to have played a significant role in rebel victories. What do these weapons tell us about whether the Syrian revolution is fueled by US/Saudi/Qatari aid? Are they the equipment of a proxy war or a of a largely self-supplied revolution?

Here, not necessarily in order of importance, are the weapons:

  • Tanks and an armored personnel carrier, the BMP-1. In many attacks on army bases and some strongly held urban positions, these vehicles seem to accomplish what small arms can't. Sometimes the break down barriers and shelter fighters. Much more often, they are deployed as mobile artillery pieces, destroying or degrading régime strongpoints.
  • Self-propelled guns such as the Gvozdika. These are heavy artillery mounted on a tracked armored vehicle. They appear much less often than tanks, but with increasing frequency, and their fire is devastating - though limited numbers diminish that effect. There is also the Shilka, a tracked anti-aircraft gun system, sometimes used in urban settings.
  • Heavy artillery, in 122mm and 130mm calibres. These field pieces are very useful but again limited in numbers, and harder to deploy than armored vehicles.
  •  Recoilless rifles, including the ancient B10 and the more recent SPG-9. These are useful against tanks and lightly protected positions. They were in very widespread use long before the Croatian M60 model was spotted.
  • Truck-mounted guns, 'technicals'. Light trucks carry everything from heavy machine guns and recoilless rifles to light anti-aircraft guns or BMP-1 cannons. Used everywhere to support infantry assaults and ambushes.
  • Mortars, up to 160mm. These are widely used by both sides. They are inaccurate without spotters but can be fired in relative safety and reach behind fortified or strongly defended perimeters.
  • Unguided rocket systems including the Type 63 multiple launcher and various S-5 launchers, as well as many home-made systems. These play somewhat the same role as mortars.
  • Rocket-propelled grenade systems such as the ubiquitous RPG-9 and sometimes the more powerful RPG-29. There are also anti-tank rocket systems such as the Fagot and the Kornet, more advanced than the recently spotted M79 Osa from Croatia.
  • IEDs, improvised explosive devices. These play a major role in ambushes and are crucial for disrupting régime supply lines.

MANPADS, portable anti-aircraft rocket systems, have attracted a lot of attention, but it's not clear whether they have conferred much of a strategic or tactical advantage.

If this list is a reasonable survey of the weapons that make a difference for the rebels, it also makes a point. In several categories - tanks and armored personnel carriers, self-propelled guns and heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft guns and artillery - every single weapon was captured from the régime army. (IEDs, of course, are home-made.) In the other categories, even those which include weapons supplied by foreign powers, the preponderance of weapons were also captured. Most of the captures occurred before any analyst alleges that foreign-supplied weapons played an important role. The possible exceptions are anti-tank rocket systems, but a large proportion of these were obtained from non-state suppliers and smuggled in by the rebels themselves - this certainly holds for the most advanced models. As for MANPADS, no state is even contemplating providing them.

Those bound and determined to see the Syrian revolution as a proxy war can mutter all they like about game-changing arms deliveries and secret funding. Foreign military aid in one form or another (including from Syrian expatriates) no doubt has had an noticeable impact which might well increase. But the weapons evidence does not conjure up a proxy battle whose outcome is determined from outside. It tells of a revolution made and sustained by the Syrians themselves. Why then are so many so reluctant to acknowledge this?