The FSA's new media-military offensive in northern Syria

Enduring America, a useful sources for media summations on Syria and (highly-debated) FSA claims of successes suggests that FSA forces are indeed increasingly gaining ground against Assad:

For several weeks there has been a growing number of rumors, low-quality Youtube videos, and eyewitness reports that suggested that not only was the FSA winning in Deir Ez Zor, Lattakia, and Aleppo, but it was on the brink of major victories in all three provinces. Similarly, there is a growing body of inconclusive evidence that the FSA is surging in Daraa province, and was increasingly effective in and around Damascus. While individual reports of this nature may or may not each be true, the trend lines were beginning to look clear.

The spread of the rebellion throughout the country means that even the vaunted internal security forces have to weigh whether moving one force to Point A will weaken Point B fatally, is surely impacting developments on the ground – desertion and heavy casualties continue to mount for the state’s forces. And Syria’s unwillingness to pursue the fight all the way to the Turkish or Iraqi borders for fear of igniting a wider conflagration must give breathing room not just to refugees, but to arms smugglers and militiamen:

For more than a week … that body of evidence has been harder and harder to dismiss as noise and rumor. With well documented victories yesterday, the FSA has encouraged us to post headlines that we have been sitting on for a long time.

While these are triumphs that have been documented by the FSA and its sympathizers — and as such must be taken with grains of salt — some of them have been corroborated by other media, such as Ben Hubbard of the AP, on location at the site of a key base the FSA has just captured from an elite Syrian Army unit. 

But the fact that so much of this appraisal of the Syrian Civil War relies on the rebels’ own reporting — which essentially makes it a propaganda effort, not that what the Syrian state news agencies show is anything less than that — should remind all observers to bear in mind the wording of the latest missive posted to the Facebook feed of Aleppo Now and the picture choice for this post: 

“When confrontation is imposed on us, then all of you are asked to act, [and in taking action, to stand] side by side.”

That the pen and the flash drive — symbolic of how important a role social media now plays in this conflict — are included with the bullet again signifies that for the FSA, this is a war on all fronts. Media is part of the war effort too. Not just for international support, but for recruitment and morale boosting efforts in country. It certainly is not the same as the AP on the ground doing independent fact-checking, but the line of thinking Aleppo Now puts forth would not look out of place to a veteran of Eritrea or Lebanon’s civil wars forty years past, or for Libya’s own uprising. It is the nature of modern warfare.

A war effort the FSA hopes (and hopes to convey) is now going it’s way up north, along an axis from Aleppo to Latakia that takes in one of their earliest strongholds and battlegrounds, in Idlib, and encroaches on Alawite coastal bastions. These are, one senses, less decisive battles for control than they are pit stops on the path of an increasingly “successful” war of attrition:

Two trends are clear - The Assad regime is retreating, pulling many units towards the capital and leaving its garrisons to fend for themselves - and they are fending poorly. Meanwhile, the FSA continues to ratchet up pressure on the capital, and despite the fact that Damascus is now the highest priority of the Assad military, those advances are accelerating.

Is it a state of collapse? Perhaps it’s too early to say, and we’re not predicting a sudden collapse even if that were true. Regardless, it is my conclusion that we have been too cautious in estimating the strengths of the insurgency, and this is saying something because we have been consistently more hawkish (and I would argue more accurate) than many media outlets who assess the strength of the Syrian insurgents.

In the last four days, the Free Syrian Army has won clear victories in Aleppo province, capturing the 12 kilometer long base belonging to the regime’s 46th regiment, and capturing many pieces of important weaponry in the process. There are many reports that the FSA siege of the Wadi al Daif base near Ma’arrat al Nouman has intensified, and the insurgents have destroyed more key equipment there in recent days. There are also reports that the FSA is pushing further northeast on the road between Idlib and Aleppo. Meanwhile, all the FSA forces that have been sieging the 46th regiment’s base will be free to push south towards Idlib and east towards Aleppo. The trend is clear - eventually, without a complete reversal of fate, the FSA will have a united front from Lattakia to Aleppo city. 

…. In 4–5 days the FSA has captured Al Bukamal, the Hamdan air base outside of it, and another major airbase near Deir Ez Zor. 

…. in Lattakia, the FSA continues to push deeper into the mountains, slowly working its way towards the coast, and in Daraa there are now daily reports of battles between the regime and insurgents. The FSA is not yet in a position to directly establish control of either region, but these battles will distract the Assad regime and eat away at the Assad military. Furthermore, if the FSA is not taken seriously in both places, it is possible to have a relatively small force of insurgents capture territory, which would significantly broaden the fronts.

At the same time, Al Jazeera reports, Islamists in Aleppo who criticized the new Syrian National Coalition — now recognized by both France and the UK — have taken a more conciliatory tone, probably suggesting their initial furor was aimed at ensuring they get their place at the table, which is pretty stacked with Syrian National Council members despite the Council’s limited reach inside Syria and increasing unpopularity among the powers aiding the rebels (the US made quite clear the Coalition was being organized in Doha because State has written off the Council).

A commenter on the EA article, though, notes that a different situation prevails on the border with Lebanon, citing a dispatch from the Christian Science Monitor. Though it suggests rebel gains in the north, it notes that counting on “a relatively small force of insurgents [that can] capture territory” is sure to lead to disappointment for FSA-boosters, given the seesawing the FSA has already experienced in Syria’s towns and cities:

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) lacks the weaponry it needs to hold ground in the face of the regime forces’ air strikes. Instead, it attacks Syrian Army positions along the southern border, takes them over just long enough to rush supplies and fighters in from Lebanon, and retreats before the regime planes arrive.

The rebels farther north have managed to take and hold a solid bloc between Aleppo and the Turkish border, which they have dubbed “Free Syria.” (Read this story about the “uneasy normal” of life in rebel-held Syria.) But it is a very different story between Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, and the border with Lebanon, some sparsely-populated 20 miles away.

The endless battle for turf underscores the challenges the rebels face simply holding ground as the conflict enters its 21st month. 

For every airbase or battalion the FSA has claimed to have captured, their gains are still reversible in the absence of a stronger military organization, and sufficient efforts to maintain popular support and encourage defections.

Extrajudicial killings of POWs and fighting amidst the rubble of towns caught between them and the Syrian Army’s tanks are not serving that strategy — but some support is there, though perhaps less for further battling as for expanding the non-violent popular demonstrations that seem so distant now but are nonetheless still going on. 

With that in mind, it should be said, for all its optimistic predictions regarding the FSA, EA has no illusions about what intense street fighting would bring to Damascus – or other Syrian cities – in the coming weeks:

>[T]he fact that the FSA is bringing the fight to Damascus is a military blow to the Assad regime, but it spells disaster for the residents of Damascus. The FSA will not be able to take the capital for many many months, at least. This will bring huge amounts of suffering to the people on the ground in these areas.