Will Assad Soon Abandon the North to Rebel Control? / Thursday, November 22nd, 2012 (Joshua Landis Blog)

Syria: Rebels shut down key government supply lines

Tom A. Peter | The Christian Science Monitor | Nov 20, 2012

    After months of fighting, Syrian opposition forces in Aleppo say that in the past week they’ve captured several critical areas from government forces that may soon give them the upper hand in northern Syria. The new ground will allow opposition groups to strain or potentially cut off supplies to government troops fighting in Aleppo Province….

    FSA fighters say the final step to closing off supply lines for the Syrian Army in Aleppo will mean taking control of the city’s airport, which the opposition group says it is now close to doing. As the group takes hold of an increasing share of ground and cuts off more government supply routes, however, it’s confronted with the realities of trying to advance farther with extremely limited supplies.

    “We’re trying to cut the supply lines for the regime inside the city,” says Abu Tawfik, a commander of Liwa Tawheed, one of the largest FSA units now fighting inside Aleppo. “The airport is the most important part of the city now. If we can control the airport, we can cut their supplies and win the war here.

    The road connecting Aleppo and Damascus is already under rebel control, which means that the regime forces are now almost entirely dependent on resupplying their troops by air. According to FSA fighters, most of the regime forces’ supplies for Aleppo Province are brought to the airport, where they are picked up by helicopter and delivered to the surrounding bases.

    The airport is now surrounded on three sides by FSA fighters, but they have so far been unable to capture one area near the airport that is populated by Assad loyalists. Fighting is likely to drag on there for some time to come.


Syria Opposition Aims to Raise $60 Billion for Rebuilding

By Dana El Baltaji and Dahlia Kholaif – Nov 21, 2012 – Blookberg

    A coalition of groups battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seeking to raise $60 billion from allied nations to help rebuild the country when fighting ends, an opposition leader said.

    Syria will need the money for reconstruction in the first six months after the conflict ends, Syrian National Council leader George Sabra told reporters in Dubai today. The United Arab Emirates may provide funds “soon,” he said…..

Rebel gains clear way to Syria’s partition

Wednesday, November 21 2012

Oxford Analytica 2012

Rebel forces captured the base of the 46th regiment near Aleppo on November 18. Their campaign has had mixed fortunes in recent weeks. Last month, their capture of Maarat al-Numan on the Damascus-Aleppo highway isolated loyalist troops in the north from the capital further. However, besieged loyalist positions in the north seemed determined to fight on, and regime airstrikes had prompted insurgents to discuss evacuating Maarat al-Numan. Syria’s civil war appeared on course for a protracted stalemate. However, a number of rebel gains in recent days indicate that they may be on the verge of a de facto partition of the country, which could tip the balance of the conflict in their favour.


·         Destruction of Syria’s main cities and infrastructure will accelerate.

·         Risk of overspill into Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq will increase.

·         As the country fragments, warlordism is likely to spread.

·         Foreign intervention remains unlikely, but external actors will increase support to both sides.

·         Improved arms supplies would significantly increase the opposition campaign’s chances.

What next

Loyalist troops are likely to lose most of their strategic strongholds in the north in coming months, paving the way to the establishment of a largely-contiguous rebel area by mid-2013. This will provide a springboard for the opposition to launch an effective campaign on the regime forces’ last remaining strongholds of Damascus, Homs and Hama in the second half of next year.


The Syrian conflict is a paradoxical one. On the one hand, the regime has been losing ground everywhere, and has abandoned key instruments of national sovereignty such as most crossing points on the Turkish and Iraqi borders, as well as many air defence bases. On the other hand, the fierce resistance of loyalist troops has suggested that any ‘tipping point’ is still some way off.

A number of factors have accounted for the stalemate:

1.     Alawi cohesion

President Bashar al-Assad’s army is sectarian in nature, with the Alawi community forming its backbone. These forces are fighting for communal survival rather than for the state or even the regime. This makes the military virtually immune to major psychological and physical blows to the state apparatus such as the loss of the Syrian-Turkish border area, the assassination of high-ranking security officials in Damascus and the defection of Prime Minister Riyad Hijab in mid-2012 (see SYRIA: Regime is cohesive, but increasingly vulnerable – April 5, 2012).

2.     Loyalist overstretch

The regime’s use of artillery and airstrikes has been a substitute for wide-scale ground offensives

Assad’s failure to reconquer the parts of Aleppo seized by the opposition in July has demonstrated his lack of manpower. Many Sunni soldiers and pilots are not allowed to leave their barracks in an attempt to prevent defections, leaving the regime reliant on roughly a quarter of its 300-400,000 troops. The regime has needed to bring in sizeable reinforcements from the neighbouring provinces of Idlib and Raqqa, at the expense of its hold over these regions. As a result, it has retained control over the western half of Aleppo and the airport, but has hardly any presence in the surrounding countryside. This has enabled rebels from these areas to attack loyalist facilities on the western fringe of the city

The regime’s manpower shortage is also evident in Damascus. The last weeks have seen the loss of several air-defence bases, including, in early November, a battalion of S-200/SA-5 Gammon missiles, Syria’s most advanced long-range anti-aircraft system. The regime’s campaign to secure the capital is reliant on elite units (Republican Guard, 4th Armoured Division) equipped with updated tanks and armoured personal carriers. While these advantages have enabled the regime to reconquer parts of the capital, it cannot prevent insurgents from re-infiltrating because it lacks enough reliable garrison troops.

3.     Insurgent resilience

Last August the regime conducted a devastating counter-attack on the rebel forces in and around Damascus, purportedly annihilating them. However, in recent weeks there have been new offensives by the Liwa al-Islam group in the eastern part of the capital as well as attacks in the centre and against the Alawi neighbourhood of Mezze 86.

4.     Rebel anti-aircraft capabilities

Rebel unification requires the unification of external support

The rebels’ main weakness has been their shortage of firepower, in particular the lack of efficient anti-aircraft defences. Several helicopters and airplanes have been shot down with heavy machine guns (‘Dushka’ 12.7, KPV 14.5), ZU-23 auto-cannons, and, possibly, shoulder-fired heat-seeking SA-7 missiles. Yet none of these out-dated systems is accurate enough to neutralise the regime’s air force. In order to tip the balance, the opposition needs to overcome US reluctance to allow it to acquire more advance missiles such as the US-made Stinger or Russian SA-18 (see SYRIA: Military power gives regime vital advantage – May 1, 2012).

The insurgents’ lack of anti-aircraft capabilities is detrimental at several levels:

·         The airstrikes have caused heavy rebel losses, which have hindered their offensive against remaining loyalist strongholds in the north.

·         The accompanying heavy civilian losses have made their mere presence in ‘liberated’ areas extremely costly.

·         The opposition has been unable to prevent the re-supply by air of besieged loyalist bases such as Wadi al-Deif near Maarat al-Numan, as well as Harim castle and, until its fall this week, the 46th regiment near Aleppo.

5.     Rebel artillery support

Rebels are often unable to capture military bases due to their lack of artillery support. Over the last weeks, insurgents in the north have made increasing use of heavy military hardware such as tanks and 130mm field guns seized from loyalist forces. So far, such instances have been too limited to tip the balance in the opposition’s favour. Moreover, this weaponry is too visible and inaccurate to be used against mobile and heavily-defended targets such as armoured convoys. Rebels are still attacking these targets with rudimentary means such as home-made roadside bombs, RPG-7 short-range anti-tank rockets, and SPG-9 recoilless guns.

Breaking the stalemate

The rebel campaign has made two important breakthroughs in recent days, capturing Hamadan airport on the Iraqi border and the 46th regiment base at al-Atarib. Rebel forces had laid siege to the al-Atarib base for months, but without any tangible result. Its fall is a strategic loss for loyalist forces in their defence of the north — they had been using the base to shell the western part of Aleppo province.

More importantly, it indicates that the rebels are now overcoming one of their greatest difficulties — conquering heavily-defended hard targets. The capture of military bases may also create a snowball effect because such bases house large stockpiles of weapons, thus increasing the rebels’ firepower.


The regime’s loss of its military bases in the north will disrupt aerial supply lines and airstrikes, thus eroding its key advantage over the rebels. This paves the way to the opposition taking full control of northern Syria by mid-2013, with the exception of a few government-controlled pockets of Aleppo.

However, in order to paralyse definitively the regime’s ground forces and defeat the elite armoured units that defend Damascus, the opposition still needs to acquire many more advanced anti-tank missiles than the few Russian-made Metis it has looted from the regime’s stockpiles. In the absence of foreign military intervention, a rebel victory will not take place without a significant improvement in the quantity and quality of rebel weapons, either through delivery from foreign state supporters or, more probably, through the capture of new army bases and stockpiles.

Tawhid backs Syrian National Coalition

November 21, 2012  By Marlin Dick in Daily Star

BEIRUT: The Tawhid Brigade, a leading Islamist rebel group in the city of Aleppo, announced its support Tuesday for the opposition Syrian National Coalition and its rejection of an Islamic state for a post-Assad Syria. The announcement was made in a video posted on YouTube, and issued on behalf of the Tawhid Brigade, the Revolutionary Military Council of Aleppo, and a Revolutionary Transitional Council for the city.

    The speaker, Abdel-Qader Saleh of the Tawhid Brigade, asserts that “a free Syria is a civil state, with Islam as the basis of its legislation, and protection for all components of Syrian society.” The mention of religion might rattle staunch secularists, but the current Syrian Constitution’s Article 3 stipulates that “Islamic jurisprudence is a primary source of legislation.”

    Saleh goes on to say that Tawhid and the two rebel councils “understood” why other Islamist rebel fighters in Aleppo, claiming to represent more than a dozen groups, strongly denounced the newly formed opposition Syrian National Coalition two days earlier. The Islamist rebel groups had slammed the National Coalition, formed earlier this month in Qatar, as a foreign-imposed “conspiracy” against the uprising against President Bashar Assad, now in its 20th month. In the earlier video, the Islamist fighters also vowed that a post-Assad Syria would be an Islamic state, which sparked angry reactions by many supporters of the uprising via social media. Flanked by half a dozen rebel figures, Saleh said the earlier statement was issued due to the “marginalization of revolutionary groups with an actual presence on the ground, which are leading the liberation fight in Aleppo.”

    The National Coalition has vowed to be more representative than its predecessor, the Syrian National Council – but has yet to make good on its pledges.

    Saleh hinted as much, declaring “support for the Syrian National Coalition, as long as it adheres to the objectives and aspirations of the revolution.”

    But he demanded that the coalition widen its scope by including “revolutionary forces” on the ground, specifically by appointing them to the various committees and bodies that the National Coalition has promised to establish, in a bid to become a government-in-exile. Saleh also supported the “unification of various rebel brigades,” pointing out that they should work toward the goals of “freedom, dignity and toppling the regime.”  Saleh ended by invoking the Islamic phrase “glory to God, his Prophet and the believers.” However, this is immediately preceded by the leading secular slogan of the uprising, namely “Long live a free and glorious Syria,” which is absent from the rhetoric of many hard-line Islamist factions fighting the regime.

    The clarification of the stance by the Tawhid Brigade, seen as one of the leading, and staunchly “Islamist” rebel factions, was carried widely on pro-uprising Facebook pages, representing various parts of the country…..

Syria now running a war economy as conflict spreads

Wed, Nov 21 – By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

    AMMAN (Reuters) – At a rebel-controlled border crossing in northern Syria, camps housing thousands of refugees trying to flee the country occupy an area that less than two years ago was usually crammed with lorries queuing to pass through customs.

    The capture of Bab al-Hawa, previously a throughfare for exports from Turkey and the Gulf to the rest of the Middle East and Europe, highlights the loss of transhipments through Syria as conflict has spread, causing a sharp drop in income from customs duties.  Plunging public revenues are a sign of the fiscal pressures Damascus is facing in the wake of the 20-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government, which has crippled industrial output and oil production and triggered a sharp depreciation in the Syrian currency.

    As the government focuses on trying to overcome the rebels it is directing economic resources to Assad supporters by maintaining high subsidies, increasing public sector wages and stockpiling wheat and other staple goods – on top of having to increase defense spending.

    That is putting a severe strain on public finances, raising the risk that the authorities will eventually have to resort to printing money to support the economy, something Damascus has long tried to avoid for fear of fuelling hyperinflation and further social unrest.

    Finance Minister Mohammad Juleilati, unveiling next year’s budget last month, announced a 13 percent rise in public sector salaries and a 25 percent increase in subsidies on food, fuel, power and agriculture.

    “This is a war budget in which the bulk is spent on the army and state employees to keep the government machinery going so that it continues to function, especially in the areas that are still under its control, and to show that the state is still on its feet,” said Samir Seifan, a prominent Syrian economist.

    He was involved in policymaking before the crisis but has since fled the country.

    Juleilati’s 2013 budget was 4 percent larger than this year’s at 1.38 trillion Syrian pounds ($19.62 billion) despite plummeting revenues, notably from oil, which used to account for 45 percent of budget income. Now it contributes only 20-30 percent, economists estimate, as oil production has halved since the crisis to around 200,000 barrels a day.

    “Revenues have deteriorated and the authorities have used up their reserves and what is keeping them afloat is some financial aid from Iran and possibly Russia,” said Seifan.  The budget, moreover, does not fully reflect the state of the economy or government finances given secrecy surrounding military spending and a flourishing unofficial economy in which hundreds of thousands of Syrians pay no tax on income from working in small workshops, doing seasonal agricultural work or conducting illicit smuggling. Sanctions imposed by Western countries banning the import of arms from Syria and blocking the Assad government’s access to Western financial systems are aimed at choking off the money Assad needs to fund the Syrian military. Seifan estimates that Syria’s gross domestic product shrank by at least 30 to 40 percent last year due to the collapse of tourism, which used to account for 11 percent of GDP, and the drop in oil output which previously contributed 23 percent of GDP.  A near 65 percent drop in the Syrian pound since the crisis began has sent the cost of importing fuel and other goods surging and shortages are also evident.

    “The shortages in gasoline and diesel are mainly due to rising demand by the army,” said a Syrian civil servant working in a non-defense ministry, interviewed via Skype. The government’s budget deficit had been a manageable 3-5 percent of GDP before the crisis but the 2013 budget forecasts a 745 billion Syrian pound deficit, or nearly a quarter of the country’s pre-crisis GDP of $50 billion-$60 billion.

    Subsidies on a range of goods from diesel to electricity to sugar and rice consume almost 40 percent of government spending while electricity costs eat up around 15 percent of the budget.  Sanctions against money transfers meanwhile have depleted remittances from Syrians living abroad, whose transfers of $800 million annually had provided a social safety net. Their loss has added to the plight of a population where military conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands and reduced many towns and city districts to rubble.

    Bankers in Damascus reported in June that the authorities had already released new cash, printed in Russia, into circulation to ensure the payment of public sector salaries and expenses, although Syria’s central bank denied such a move…..

    Economists say it may soon be forced to print money on a much bigger scale.

    “If they don’t get enough loans from their allies Russia and Iran they will print money and the pound will just jump from 100 to 200 to 300 against the dollar,” said Seifan.

    “The state is afraid of printing money because it will create a social time bomb,” he said. “But it could be increasingly forced to do so to pay the army’s salaries.”


Could a Syrian Kurdistan work?

Assessing the economic and political potential of an autonomous Kurdish region

By Josh Wood on November 21, 2012 – Executive Magazine

    Things are changing in northeastern Syria’s Kurdish-majority Hassake province.

    Gradually, the swoops and curves of Arabic script on storefronts and street signs are being replaced with the Latin characters that Syria’s Kurds write their own language in — an act that was illegal just a few months ago. So too are the soldiers of the Damascus regime being replaced with Kurdish militiamen and the reins of governance taken up by the local groups….

    “The oil located in the Hassake region is not good quality oil, but these fields are the only fields which have seen an increase in their output in the last few years and most of Syria’s remaining oil reserves are in this region,” said Jihad Yazigi, the editor of The Syria Report, a publication that analyzes the country’s economy. Getting exact figures on capacity during a civil war is understandably difficult. In Hassake’s main oil town, Rmeilan, a production manager from the government’s state oil company, the Syrian Petroleum Company, said that before the war the nearby fields were producing 166,000 barrels per day (bpd). As of September, due to the civil war and international sanctions on Syrian oil, only 80,000 bpd were being produced, he said, on condition of anonymity to protect his safety. It is estimated that the area has enough oil to maintain pre-war production levels for at least two decades.

    The Hassake region is not exclusively Kurdish. While it is difficult to be certain as the Syrian government does not include Kurdish as an ethnic group in national surveys, they are estimated to make up more than 60 percent of the region’s population. And while much of Hassake is in the hands of Kurdish groups, the main oilfields remain controlled by the government’s forces.

    But sanctions have mostly halted Syria’s export of oil and forced foreign companies such as Total, Gulfsands and Royal Dutch Shell to halt their activities in the country. With oil revenues low and the government locked in an increasingly bloody civil war, there is a possibility that the regime could lose its ability to control the country’s oil.  “Syria’s oil business is in shambles,” said Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and a Syria expert, adding that the government has lost the ability to plan its oil output strategically. “The Syrian government is not in long-term planning mode, it is planning day by day,” he said. “It is really directing its attention to the big population centers and denying the opposition a stable safe haven within Syria.” For Syria’s Kurds, grabbing the oil fields in the northeast could be a golden ticket, allowing them to bankroll autonomy in one form or another. “If you manage to produce and sell 50,000 barrels per day, you can sustain the life of one to two million people quite easily,” Yazigi said…..while Kurdish groups might want to take control of the oil, they would likely face obstacles. “I think that the central government — and any future central government — will be willing to send tanks to take control of this region,” said Yazigi….

    Already autonomous?

    “I think they have autonomy already, we don’t have to talk about it in the future tense: They’ve taken it, the state has collapsed, they’re running their own affairs pretty much,” said Landis. “Obviously, a lot depends on how long this state of affairs drags on — the longer it drags on, the better it is for Kurds.”

    Yazigi has a more pessimistic view. “I think there is a desire from the Kurds to be more autonomous, but I think it’s going to be very difficult for them to have extended rights that go beyond speaking their language and teaching it,” he said.

    At present, it does not look likely that whoever comes out on top will be sympathetic to giving the Kurds more autonomy.

    “The Arab opposition has been willing to make noises about greater autonomy but it doesn’t want to commit itself anything like recognizing national rights for Kurds,” said Landis….

    According to Landis, the gist of the message that the Free Syrian Army is sending the Kurds by entering their areas and engaging in battles is that “you don’t get to become Switzerland and be neutral; there is no Switzerland in Syria and if you side with the government we’re going to make you feel the pain.” Detractors of the PYD have accused the group of being aligned with the Assad regime, though the organization denies this and says it is against the government. Militarily, with only several thousand fighters, the PYD’s forces are outnumbered and see hostile threats on all fronts. Still, they are readying their militias for possible confrontations to protect what they have gained.

    “We are organizing ourselves, our people, to be ready for everything, for every possible situation by this regime or a future regime,” said Saleh Mohammed, the leader of the PYD.  “Even if there is any invasion by Turkey, we are ready for it.”


With Syria’s eastern oilfields in rebel hands, a brisk business in pirated crude grows

By David Enders, McClatchy Newspapers

    SHAHEL, Syria — Syrian rebels have captured two of the three major oilfields in the country’s southeastern Deir al Zour province and are extracting oil that they say is helping to support their rebellion

    “We are at the beginning of winter, and people need oil to run the bakeries and to heat their homes. The weather is very cold here,” said a rebel leader here who, for security reasons, identifies himself by his nom de guerre, Abu Mohamed.

    The capture of the fields is another blow to the Syrian government’s attempt to offset inflation and shortages of various goods in the areas it still controls. It also has set off a booming oil trade in this impoverished area. Dozens of trucks wait in line 24 hours a day to fill up at rebel-held wells, which produce a light crude that can be burned without refining, though the result is dense smoke. Some farmers insist the unrefined crude can be used to power farm equipment, though it seems primarily to be used for heat….

    Among the groups profiting from the wells are Jabhat al Nusra, whose members have won admiration from some Syrians for their effectiveness as fighters against the government while inspiring fear and suspicion in others because of their calls for a Syrian state based on Islamic law and their alleged links to al Qaida.

    Rebels have also said they are planning a push into Hasaka province to the north, the country’s other major source of crude oil. Abu Mohamed said that two of the three main fields around Deir al Zour – the captured fields are known as al Warde and Taim – are under rebel control, and that rebels would capture the third, Sheikh Omar, after they found engineers who could operate the wells. Rebels said locating engineers had been a challenge because most of the people who were employed in the oil sector in Syria were Alawites, the religious minority to which President Bashar Assad belongs and who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population. Virtually all of the armed rebels in Syria are Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of the country’s population. A main rebel grievance is that the country’s political, economic and military elites have been dominated by Alawites for decades.