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.

No comments:

Post a Comment