Free Syrian Army Controls Border Areas

Free Syria exists along Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq. The Free Syrian Army, somewhat to my surprise, is beginning to take and hold territory, acting more like a conventional army than like a guerrilla movement. Admittedly, the territory is in the boondocks. But these boondocks are crucial because they control border areas and roads between Syria and Turkey on the one side, and Syria and Iraq on the other.

Syria civil war

There is an old saying in the military that everyone wants to be a strategist but real men want to do logistics. That is, “The aspect of military operations that deals with the procurement, distribution, maintenance, and replacement of materiel and personnel.” Border crossings are pivotal to this sector of war-making.

The significance of the FSA taking Abu Kamal, the border crossing with Iraq along the Euphrates road, is that 70% of the goods coming into Syria were coming from the Iraq of PM Nouri al-Maliki, who had refused to join a blockade of Syria because of his new alliance with Iran. But al-Maliki’s attitude is irrelevant if the revolutionaries have Abu Kamal. This development is a nightmare for the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq, since it is fighting a low-intensity struggle with its Sunnis, who predominate in the areas abutting Syria. If Sunni fundamentalists in the FSA hook up with their Iraqi counterparts, that is trouble for al-Maliki and Iran. And, Iraqi Sunnis can now more freely export arms and goods to their Syrian co-religionists.

The taking of the checkpoints with Turkey gives the FSA freer access to the arms and other goods provided to them by Qatar and Saudi Arabia via Turkey (and with some oversight from the US Central Intelligence Agency, which isn’t involved in supplying arms but is interested in influencing to which groups they are given).

Al-Arabiya tv of Dubai (admittedly anti-al-Assad and Saudi-owned) showed scenes from Izaz, in Aleppo governorate, of fighters who said they had taken the border town and chased away the Syrian army troops. They showed three smoldering tanks that they said they had destroyed.

I was surprised that the rebels can now destroy tanks with such ease. They must have been provided with very powerful land sophisticated rocket-propelled grenades, as good or better than the ones Hizbullah used on Israeli tanks in 2006 to such devastating effect. I imagine that Russian RPG-29s are freely available in the international arms market, and Qatar and Saudi Arabia could buy quite a lot of them for their friends. The Saudis may also have American-made FGM-148 Javelins in their arsenal, and are now sharing.

The Qataris are alleged to have provided effective RPGs to the fighters of Zintan in Libya, allowing them to neutralize Qaddafi’s army, and then retake Zawiya and come into Tripoli. Of course, they had help from NATO, the planes of which also were destroying tanks and rocket-launching trucks when they were out in the open. In Syria the fighting is going more slowly because the rebels lack any sort of air support. Their RPGs may give regime helicopter pilots pause about flying against them, however. The rebels claim to have shot down a helicopter gunship last week.

But beyond this technical capability (which seems to have reached a new level of effectiveness quite suddenly), the FSA is likely benefiting from low morale in the Syrian army and substantial desertions and defections on the part of the foot soldiers and even tank crews. (Some of the demoralization comes from not being enthusiastic for the regime, which seems clearly to be faltering. Some comes from being Sunnis serving a regime that increasingly is deploying Alawite Shiite ‘ghost brigades’ against Sunni villagers.)

In Damascus, regime forces chased the rebels out of the downtown Midan area, and fighting raged in other neighborhoods. The rebels set fire to the main police HQ. Witnesses reached by journalists by telephone spoke of bodies piling up in the streets. The regime is trying to clear the capital of civilians, calling on them to flee, so its armor and artillery can get a clear shot at the FSA guerrillas.

But if the FSA is able to defeat and execute the Syrian military at Abu Kamal, the regime’s ability to come back in strongholds such as Midan does not do it much good. Logistics.

If it is true that the Russian ambassador to France said Friday morning that Bashar al-Assad is ready to step down ‘in a civilized manner,’ it is a sign that even he sees the logistical writing on the wall. (Don’t have confirmation as of this writing.)

The refugee problem is growing by leaps and bounds. Thousands of Syrians are said to be streaming into Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. (Jordan has maintained its open border policy and is setting up camps for the Syrians, contrary to what I mistakenly reported yesterday [note to self: twitter is unreliable if not corroborated]. Even before the recent, dramatic events, the UNHCR was reporting that the number of refugees seeking assistance had tripled since April, to 120,000. If the regime and the fighting are emptying out Damascus, that number could easily grow by a factor of 10.

Reports speak of the refugees lacking bread. Any major conflict situation produces problems of child abandonment and rape. There is a great deal of human suffering going on in Syria, and it will be a challenge to a world community already suffering compassion fatigue and undergoing continued economic hardship at home.

Posted in Syria | 20 Responses | Print |

20 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    There is an old saying in the military that everyone wants to be a strategist but real men want to do logistics. That is, “The aspect of military operations that deals with the procurement, distribution, maintenance, and replacement of materiel and personnel.” Border crossings are pivotal to this sector of war-making


    The counter to this is now ambushes of the trucks carrying reinforcements and ammunition for the rebels.

    The rebel supply lines are still too long.

  2. The Syrian-Iraqi border is long and open, and the FSA can’t close it. The main road from Baghdad to Damascus does not go through Abu Kamal, but through Rutba.

    Even if the FSA is able to hold on to the border posts. It is not certain that they held Bab ul-Hawa yesterday for longer than it took to make the video. The BBC correspondent on the Turkish side of the border later on heard no activity at all (though it is true that the two border posts are separated by 3 km).

  3. Earlier lots of Iraqis fled from the fighting there into Syria. What has happened to them? Have they returned, moved to other countries, or are they now stuck in another civil war?

  4. Juan, I look to your daily updates to find information that is hard to come by. I must say though, in your excitement to see this regime fall, your news coverage is falling short. Stating that they are taking and holding territory much to your surprise does not provide any information on how they are being organized and who is organizing them. Who are these people? Who is funding and arming them?

      • Russian arms are available on the free market and Qatar helped the rebels in Libya. You mean those paragraphs. Or the one where Saudis may have American arms they may be sharing. Not exactly narrowing it down is it?

        • All of those are likely sources, in addition to weapons brought over from defecting soldiers.

          I don’t understand why it should be “narrowed down.”

  5. I heard that Russian sources say Assad is ready to step down if it can be done civilly, but Assad denies saying this. The perception that the regime may fall is cause for worry among Assad’s supporters, who may defect.

    Is Russia trying to end the crises by ending the Assad monopoly, but still retain influence?

    • The Russians will do anything to hold onto that naval base. And they should. Regaining that base on the Mediterranean was Putin’s way of saying his regime had regained superpower status, or at least a status greater than any of the other Great Powers beneath the US hegemony. The Brits struggled for centuries to keep the Russians out of the Mediterranean, and dumped that burden onto our eager hands. Bush pissed it away without a thought in his head. I want that Russian base there if for no other purpose to stand as a monument (visible from white-folks country, unlike Iraq) of how moronic the Neocons were and why they should never be let back in the White House again.

    • I have mentioned this before, but there has been some speculation that Assad and the Russians may be attempting to create a coastal mini-state where Allawis (in alliance with Christians) can still dominate.

  6. I too would like to know what has become of the many thousands of Iraqis who fled to Syria during the time of the American war.

    • Iraqi refugees in Syria had been reluctant to return because their neighborhoods had been ethnically cleansed and there was nothing to go back to. They are fleeing back to Iraq in droves now, even some being evacuated by air by the Iraqi government.

  7. Looking at the map I come to different conclusions: the border areas to Turkey, surprise? Who would have thought that these bucolic Kurdish hamlets could be taken! where do they get their arms and training from, possibly Turkey? And Deir-ez-Zor: full of Iraqi refugees and semi-nomad folks, that´s at least how I remember it (2008). A mile away from the Euphrates and you´re in the middle of Arabian-desert-nowhere, tribal land as it can be. This is not Syria. That´s like taking things that happen on Navajo soil in New Mexico and in Alaska to represent the US.

    God, I feel so sorry, especially for those Iraqi refugees. Can´t help it but I don´t like the Free Syrian army at all. Free who? To replace the present rulers with what? There are other ways to send a government to hell for the better… their point “..but not with the Assad clan” might be true. But the present lack of enthusiasm of most Syrians signals to me that they, too, feel that they´re just replacing one evil with another.

  8. Just a quick questions. Where did you get your information that RPG-29s are freely available on the international market? As far as I’m aware only Russia makes them with some countries holding a license for manufacture (such as Iran). I doubt Russia would sell any to Qatar.

    As for Saudi Javelins, did they buy any in the end and if so would America allow such expensive and advanced weapons to be giving to the rebels?

    And though RPGs have bought down helicopters before they aren’t exactly MANPADs. Their main purpose is to defeat armour.

    • Russia’s arms can be bought on the market from 3rd parties. You can get almost anything out there

  9. Professor, can you recommend some primary sources of information on Syria especially ones concerning current events that I might monitor?

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