Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance.
With no negotiated solution in sight and international powers ruling out any military intervention, Syria’s eight-month uprising looks to be heading towards civil war. Today, Turkey said that it does not wish to consider military intervention but is “ready for any scenario.”
Despite growing pressure from the region and across the world, the Syrian government is pursuing its military campaign against protesters. Their uprising has become an armed one, as military defections rise and opposition attitudes harden.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a band of defectors led by Colonel Riyad al-Assad. It first declared its existence in late July and has been receiving increasing attention in recent weeks. It is mostly active in the provinces of Idlib and Homs, north of Damascus and Dera’a, to the south. It has established enclaves outside of government control, and is reported to have bases in Hatay province in Turkey, and in north Lebanon.
The FSA proclaims that it has over 15,000 soldiers, although it is unclear how well coordinated they are, and some defectors remain largely independent. However, a number of things suggest that the militants’ strength is rising.
First is the proliferation of weapons, supplied via Lebanon: the price of Kalashnikov assault rifles there has soared, and the Syrian army has been laying minefields to deter cross-border weapons smuggling. Then there is the changing locality of violence - nearer the capital. The FSA claimed it carried out the November 16 attack on an intelligence base, bringing the battle to the outskirts of Damascus for the first time.
Finally, popular support for the militants appears to be rising. Civil opposition groups, previously ambivalent about an armed uprising, called their November 25 protest the Friday of ‘May the Free Syrian Army Protect Us’. However, opposition groups outside Syria have maintained a careful distance from the FSA; but it is one of the few organizations with a real presence on the ground, and may be an important political player in the months to come.
Militias loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are raising the risk of the uprising becoming a civil war. In some areas, these informal gangs known as ‘shabbiha’ (‘ghosts’) - initially deployed to supplement the regular army - appear to be starting to act independently of their regime paymasters. Thus gang leaders in Homs have begun behaving as warlords, using their power to extract economic gain, for example by kidnapping for ransom. If this trend develops, any civil war (and aftermath) would be complicated by these emergent criminal networks.
Another threat to the government’s stability has emerged in the past two weeks. People in Damascus are now openly expressing anger over the lack of heating oil and cooking gas and are unhappy at the prospect of a long, cold winter with fuel shortages. Long hours queuing to purchase oil at twice the normal price has provided Syrians with a new public space in which to grumble about the government. In coming months, these grievances and the frustrations of the business community will lead to revival of protests and anti-regime feeling in Damascus and Aleppo.
The steady stream of pro-regime rallies in Damascus is at the very least disruptive and may be starting to irritate the silent majority. If opposition gathers pace in Damascus, protests are likely to spread to areas so far showing minimal signs of dissent. Such a development would signal a serious threat to Assad rule. The president has announced elections and constitutional reforms for early next year. However, the presence of tanks on the streets has made talk of reform sound absurd to many Syrians.
As the regime and opposition become increasingly entrenched, hopes of a peaceful transition are fading. The Assad regime’s intransigence appears to be leading to civil war - and one in which the cohesion to date of both pro-regime and opposition armed forces is likely to dissolve.
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