The lack of decision in Syria’s civil war, now entering its third year, can be explained by the failure of the various rebel groups to coalesce into more coherent military formations and develop beyond the low-level guerrilla tactics they have been using since the beginning of the uprising in 2011.
In Syria, unlike the other states that have experienced the turbulence of the so-called “Arab Spring,” the rebels are facing an entrenched regime based in a threatened minority population: the Alawites. Consequently, for the regime itself and the 2.6 million Alawites of Syria, holding onto power is an existential question; victory is survival and defeat is annihilation. These are primary interests not subject to mediation or compromise motivated by the gradual exhaustion of political will. In other words, the Assad regime will not lose the will to fight. This leaves only one strategic path for the rebels: military victory. A tall order, but not one without precedent or doctrine. For guidance, they must look to the eternal form of war for the weak: guerrilla warfare. They are already practicing this at the tactical level, but their challenge is to produce strategic outcomes.
The historical template is clear enough: assuming that a sufficient portion of the population is sympathetic, the rebels begin by launching low-level guerrilla operations against vulnerable regime targets such as isolated detachments and poorly garrisoned outposts in order to capture weapons and other military essentials. They take refuge in remote terrain, politically dominating whatever population does exist, and use these safe havens to build up their capabilities as the grinding process of guerrilla warfare wears down the regime and empowers the rebels until they reach an approximate parity. At this point, the regular military forces that the rebels have built up are unleashed, and they disarm the regime by destroying its armed forces in battle.
The weaknesses of the Syrian rebels becomes apparent when the military imperatives of guerrilla warfare are kept in mind. For example, take Frontline’s recent documentary, “Syria Behind the Lines,” filmed by Olly Lambert in the Orontes river valley in October of last year. At one point, Lambert “embeds” with Jamal Maarouf, “a leader of 10,000 armed men,” and “one of the most powerful rebel leaders in the region,” during an assault on a regime base. They attack with a dozen or so fighters and a stolen rocket launcher mounted on the back of a light pickup truck … probably not a sufficient force for such an ambitious mission, especially when no one knows how to aim the weapon, as one of Maarouf’s commanders admits to the amused laughter of everyone present. But the attack proceeds anyway, some artillery is exchanged, a few shots are fired, and the glorious offensive is called off.
This is the same “pre-modern formlessness” that Robert D. Kaplan described in Sierra Leone nearly two decades ago, and is characteristic of warfare throughout the Third World: poorly led and ill-disciplined bands of men occasionally clashing with one another in a sort of perpetually inconclusive sparring. On a large scale this type of warfare can exhaust regular military forces tasked to suppress it, and every guerrilla movement experiences this level of development, but if they are to achieve victory, it must be a transitory phase used to build power and capacity during the earliest phase of the struggle. At this stage, guerrillas are little more than roving bandits, capable of harassing enemy forces and occasionally snatching supplies. Their inability to prevail in a major engagement stunts their development and keeps strategic objectives out of reach.
The various militias that toppled Qadhafi’s regime in 2011 were also inexperienced and poorly organized, but they had the support of NATO air power, supplies, and special operations personnel. Thus far, the Syrian rebels have not been so lucky, and they have been unable to significantly improve the military proficiency of their own fighters. Until they do so, the regime will be able to confine them to marginal areas. However, regime forces have been unable to fully exploit the weakness of the rebels due to their own similar ineptitude.
This is not to suggest that I believe intervening in Syria’s civil war would be in U.S. interests. Given the ongoing radicalization of the rebels, military assistance would simply hasten the arrival of yet another Islamist state in the Middle East. The absence of a Good Guy to support in the Syrian conflict is confusing U.S. foreign policy, rooted in the legalistic moralism that underlies our culture: Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator who slaughters is own people, but the rebels are Islamists threatening the genocide of the entire Alawite population. The heady and volatile logic of interventionism is not a reliable guide in this dilemma, and the U.S. is better served by the cold strategic logic that advises non-intervention.