Weekend Syria Roundup

It is the weekend. A good time to sum up the three recent developments that characterize the current momentum of Syria’s civil war.

I. Assad Is Winning

(Map credits: http://www.nrc.nl. Legend: dark beige = government held , purple = rebel held, red = kurdish held, blue = disputed, light beige = sparsely populated).

In what is a fairly shocking display of incompetence (and not the first, obviously), several Western intelligence services have recently altered their prognoses of Syria’s civil. For example, both Israel and Germany have moved from the earlier expectation that Assad’s regime was in its last throws to the diagnosis that the government is strongly improving its position and can preserve a stalemate at the very least. In particular, Assad is thought to have regained control over his supply lines, both through the air from Iran, and overland from Lebanon in the West and Jordan in the South (at Qusayr and Khirbet Ghazaleh, respectively). Indeed, according to the German intelligence service BND Assad may well reconquer the entire Syrian South by end 2013. (See also David Hartwell, “Battle for Al-Qusayr highlights shift in Syrian conflict”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 29 May 2013)

II. Russian Weapons Not Yet Delivered

Much consternation was caused by the Russian announcement, a while back, that it would deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria (as well as, recently, the plan to deliver Mig-29 airplanes).

The S-300 in particular would be problematic, as its radar can detect any aircraft landing and taking off within a 225 mile-range, putting Israel’s heartland well within reach (great description of the S-300 problematic here).  As a consequence, Netanyahu immediately vowed to destroy the S-300 once deployed. On the other hand, as Reuters reported recently, there are the joint Cypriot-Israeli military exercises held in recent years. Since an S-300 system is operative on the island of Cyprus, these exercises mean that Israel’s air force has had plenty of opportunities to explore the system’s weaknesses, potentially decreasing the challenge S-300 can pose to Israel air superiority.

But whatever the exact dangers of the S-300 system, it now seems the system will be operable in 2014 at the earliest. This conclusion follows a week of mixed reports, with Assad first claiming that missiles were already delivered, but later walking back this message. In general, it seems that, even if S-300 rockets themselves were delivered to Syria, major challenges would remain in terms of training Syrian forces to operate the complex system. Certainly the biggest threat to the West would be for Russian forces to directly operate the systems themselves, but currently nothing seems to indicate such a development.

III. Syrian Opposition Remains a Shambles

The final element having become increasingly clear this week is the persistent fragmentation of Syria’s opposition. Several aspects played a role here.

First the opposition refused to expand its leadership from 60 to 85 members, thereby blocking a Western orchestrated attempt to break the present dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood by including more members from Michael Kilo’s secular opposition group. Instead of the extra 25 members of this secular group that were supposed to be included, the opposition councial was not willing to go beyond 5. Second, a prominent moderate Sufi cleric initially elected to the National Coalition was later excluded as well, only reinforcing the Qatar-backed Brotherhood faction of the overarching opposition body. Third and finally, it seems Syria’s rebels have now entirely rejected joining Kerry’s Geneva II piece talks on June 4th “as long as Assad’s massacres continue”. This decision presumably reflects the opposition’s declining military fortunes in the war, which leave it in a poor position to force Assad’s government into significant concessions.

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