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More Bits on Syria

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Two stories on unconventional weapons in Syria.  First, CJ Chivers explains why IEDs matter a lot in the Syrian context:

This is where the I.E.D. fits in. Once the armed opposition mastered the I.E.D. and spiked with bombs much of the very ground that any military seeking to control Syria must cover, and Syria’s army lacked a deep bench of well-trained explosive ordnance disposal teams and the suites of electronic and defensive equipment for its vehicles to survive, then the end was written. Because the Syrian army is fucked. And its troop must know it.

How important was the I.E.D. in all of this? It started with terrain denial, no-go roads and rising government casualties, which led to units spending more time on bases, which in turn allowed the uprising to grow and, to a degree, organize itself more fully. And then the direction shifted, to what is visible now. In a few quick months, the opposition went from being in a desperate military position to fighting in the center of Damascus while the world set an Assad-is-ousted countdown clock. That clock may or may not be premature; it remains to be seen whether the government will consolidate and stand after the events of this week. But even if it firms up, the army’s problem will still be the same. It cannot operate in a tactically meaningful way in much of its own country, it has no local Sunni proxy to take its place and it has no time to find one, the more so in a climate of Sunni anger. It can fight and it can kill; sure. But it cannot operate in a way that it gets stronger, and its foes get weaker. With I.E.D’s. in large-scale use against an army ill-equipped to counter them, the dynamic works the opposite way. And where can the army go? Considered in this war’s social and demographic context, with the Alawite-dominated military deployed in the midst of an armed and now bomb-savvy, Sunni-dominated population that loathes its government and has suffered terribly under its hand, there will almost certainly be a time, not too far off, when you will be referring to the Syrian army in the past tense.

Bomb by bomb it lost momentum. And now, bomb by bomb and stand-off by stand-off, until it breaks and ancient forms of battlefield ugliness overtake its units, the Syrian army’s most likely end seems clear. Timing? You won’t get me to guess. But the rest, as they say, is details – bloody as they will be.

It’s a very interesting argument. The US Army and USMC have suffered terribly from IEDs, and have spent a tremendous amount of time and money working through (reasonably successful) ways of reducing the damage that IEDs can cause. The Syrian Army lacks both the time and the resources. I might be a little more cagey than Chivers in terms of predicting its demise; because of the sectarian makeup of the Army, and because Alawites (with some reason) fear Sunni vengeance, the Army may continue to fight even under very adverse circumstances. FWIW, to my recollection the problems faced by the Syrian Army in ’67 and ’73 had to do with basic skill and communication disadvantages rather than morale and organizational collapse.

Second, Kris Alexander reports on the FSA’s ambiguous position with regards to the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal:

Leaders of the Free Syrian Army say they know about Assad’s unconventional stockpiles — and are creating specially-trained units to secure them. A former regime officer named General Adnan Silou is heading up the FSA efforts to secure the WMD. He claims to have trained the Syrian Army “in securing stores, in reconnaissance of possible threats, in how to purge supplies and in treatment should Syria come under attack a chemical or biological attack.” This sounds similar to what the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency does to manage remaining American chemical stockpiles as they await final destruction. As welcome as FSA efforts to secure the dangerous materials are, there is no indication yet that the rebels will actually get rid of the WMD.

Silou stated, “the weapons used to be to protect Syria. Now they are just to protect Bashar.” This does not sound like a man who wants to bring Syria into compliance with global nonproliferation efforts. Instead, it sounds like a man who understands the deterrent value of Syria’s WMD and wishes to retain it. This is yet another piece of the puzzle for those advocating supporting the rebellion. Will an FSA-led Syria be any better than Assad?

My wager would be this; the international community will be able to offer the new Syrian government a deal (involving both direct compensation and more general normative approval) similar in some ways to the deals that were offered to the post-Soviet republics in the 1990s. The utility of chemical weapons is fairly limited by both military and normative factors, and it’s unclear that they provide sufficient deterrent to prevent Israel from doing whatever Israel wants to do in any case.

But maybe we’ll see. See also this report on Russia quashing Syrian plans to use chemical weapons on opposition forces. Grain of salt and all that, but interesting if true. The central role that the international community seems to have played here (besides the transfer of some arms to the opposition) is in making the Assad regime nervous about using particularly parts of its arsenal, including most notably fixed wing aircraft and chemical weapons.  Now, I tend to think that the effectiveness of both of those weapon types tends to be overstated, so I’m not sure that prevention of their use should be considered a decisive factor in the conflict, but interesting nonetheless.

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