Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Assad's Shifting Strategy

Where is Syria heading is a question many are pondering, as the world watches the recent crescendo of violence in the two year old rebellion.The answer may lie in what is emerging as the new strategy of the Assad regime.

In the early days of the revolution, the regime largely ignored the civilian uprising and acted as if it would dissipate on its own. The regime’s media tried to paint life in Syria as normal and there was denial of any refugee issue. However, as the peaceful revolt intensified and demonstrations continued to sweep Syrian cities, the regime shifted gears and gradually pushed the conflict into the military arena; an arena where most ordinary civilians prefer to stay away and where the regime clearly has an advantage.

Realizing that, the opposition initially resisted the militarization of the conflict; but eventually, and inevitably, many people, including ordinary civilians, had to take up arms to defend themselves against the regime’s ruthlessness. Basically, in this second phase the regime’s strategy was to win militarily against a, now armed, rebellion.

But the regime's calculations  were wrong. Despite their military disadvantage  the rebels put up a good fight. They continued to press on. Over time, it became clear that the best the regime could achieve was a stalemate. After tens of thousands of casualties and massive destruction almost everyone became convinced that neither side would be able to defeat the other. Obviously, that was not an acceptable scenario for the regime. Thus the new turn in Assad's strategy

Assad's current goal has changed from the impossible goal of defeating the opposition to pressuring the west to come to the negotiation table on Assad's terms. How can he do that? One way is to make the war so outrageous and the spectacle so intolerable that the west– given that there is no stomach on either side of the Atlantic for any for direct military involvement –would be pushed into negotiating Assad, as the only other way of stopping the escalating carnage and destruction. Scud missiles destroying whole neighborhoods became a political weapon as much as a military one in the regime’s  strategy.

If this reading of the regime's current strategy is correct we are likely to see more deliberate use of horrifying violence in the days and weeks ahead. Many, especially in neighboring Lebanon, are wondering whether this will include a widening of the conflict beyond Syria’s border in order to leverage the pressure on the west into submissive negotiations with Assad. They are also asking whether the west will counter by altering its own strategy and finally agreeing to provide the rebels with the kind of weapons which can tilt the balance in their favor, and force Assad into accepting an exit deal. It may not be long before we know the answer.

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