Syrian Baath Escalates, Uses Jets to Bomb Aleppo

When I was interviewed by the BBC last week about rebel advances in Damascus, I cautioned that putting some armed bands in some neighborhoods would not result in a revolution. Nor did even a big bombing of security officials. I said that that a significant proportion of the population of the capital would have to rise up in order for the regime to fall. The rising did not take place (people were still terrified, and thousands fled). In subsequent days, the Baath government riposted, taking back the downtown Midan and other areas, and not hesitating to use its massive firepower advantage, even if it meant high non-combantant casualties.

Then the rebels launched their Aleppo campaign, taking over whole neighborhoods of the country’s largest city, in the north. This advance was probably made possible in part because the regime had pulled troops to the capital to meet the challenge there. But now that Damascus has been largely regained, the government of Bashar al-Assad has turned its sights on Aleppo.

One Arabic report has it that that the al-Assad regime has removed hundreds of Sunni officers from responsibilities for safeguarding chemical weapons stores and commanding helicopter gunships. They are giving these sensitive responsibilities to officers from the minority Alawite Shiite community instead, which dominates the upper echelons of the Baath government and military.

The defection of the Tlass (Talas) family, formerly pillars of Sunni support for the regime, may have driven this change if it is true. Manaf Tlass surfaced Tuesday to call on Syrians to rise up against their government.

In a remarkable escalation, the regime on Tuesday and early Wednesday subjected Aleppo to bombing raids by MIGs.

ITN has a chilling video report with footage from Aleppo:

The determination of a terrified and brutal minority regime to reassert itself is clear in the appointments made by President al-Assad to replace his assassinated officials. As Joshua Landis explains, they are all hawks.

On Tuesday evening into Wednesday, ground forces subjected the Tal district of Aleppo to heavy artillery bombardment. The 216th Mechanized Brigade directed fire on the district of 100,000 people about 5 miles north of Aleppo proper. Helicopter gunships were also deployed against the rebels.

Elsewhere in the north, there was back and forth fighting by rebels and regime loyalists in Deir al-Zor.

The Syrian regime is armed to the teeth, with 5,000 tanks, thousands of artillery pieces, and a significant air force. If it decides to commit these massive military resources to the fight with the rebels, it may well be able to crush them in the short term. But its problem is to retain the loyalty of enough of the population and the troops that stem from them to continue to operate the machinery of war against its own urban population.

18 Responses

  1. Meanwhile, the world finally gets official confirmation that this horrid regime has been stockpiling sarin nerve agents, mustard gas and cyanide, as per Jihad Makdissi’s statement earlier this week. In the past, they denied they were doing anything of the sort. It’s now clear to even the most devoted apologists that Damascus lied about this – as it lied about plans to develop a nuclear capacity. As bad as the current situation, just think how much worse it would be if this band of Baathist murderers also had their mitts on a nuke.

    • Syria did not “lie about this.” It refused to sign the chemical warfare Treaty, exactly as its neighbor with which it is at war Israel refused to sign the same Treaty, and it maintained the same “won’t say” attitude as Israeli official policy. That changed when there were open threats from Israel to attack that deterrent.

  2. So, turning the military against al-assad will be the key to “resolving” the situation. Best that can be hoped and worked toward would be for a kinder and gentler junta to have Had Enough. At that point we would get back to the status quo ante, hopefully with a more enlightened viewpoint toward the cilivian/military relationship, not unlike in Egypt.

    The best intentions of the resistant are thus better directed not at beating the military (fat chance), but at getting their attention and nominal respect, and negotiating a move along the above lines.

    • I see no parallel whatsoever with Egypt. Syria is in midst of a civil war. The mostly Alawite core of the military and shabiha are arrayed on one side. The military in Egypt retains relatively broad support.

      Your “fat chance” comment is true to the extent that we are likely in for a very bloody and prolonged civil war. But I don’t see the military holding together indefinitely, they are under a lot of pressure.

    • Like Francisco Franco and Jose Sanjurjo? Great… whoever will mop up after the poor to-be-assassinated-again Kurds trying to found Kurdistan for the nth time (read Joshua LandisĀ“ page on this matter) and everyone else who thinks this is his hour will most certainly not be better then the present regime. This is going to take a bad ending.

  3. Not to minimize the human and civil right component of the Syrian uprising in any way, stil, one has to be subjective in analysis. In your comments you say the reaction of the Assad’s regime shows: “determination of a terrified and brutal minority regime to reassert itself”. They may be terrified, and brutal but in this particular case, how do you think any country/regime would react to a Saudi/Qatar backed armed uprising on its soil? How do you think US would react if a group manages to assassinate American top military command? We saw what happened when 4 Americans were killed in Fallujah.

    • Exactly!! Foreign governments are trying to topple the Assad regime, which by all accounts is brutal and is run by ethnic minority. The point is that Assad regime’s response is a natural response of any government (brutal or egalitarian) when faced with external aggression.

      Its amazing how the disastrous, illegal Iraq war changed the Sunni-Shia dynamics of that region. All of a sudden Shiites find their sphere of influence grow by more than a third (Iraq is around a third of Iran). This has unsettled the Jeffersonian democrats in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries and are reacting in earnest to quell the rising Shia influence. Great game of the 21st century.

      • I worry about you if you think it is “natural” for a government to kill 15,000 people, the majority of them non-combatants. The state drove some dissidents to take up arms. In spring of 2011 there was no Free Syria Army. What you’ve said is an atrocity and you should be ashamed of yourself.

        • Prof. Cole,
          In fact I am absolutely appalled at the civilian deaths but all I was trying to say was that Syria is now a theater of proxy war and in proxy war both sides share culpability.

          Lot of prominent voices in the nation voiced opposition to the Iraq war, including you. Iraq war removed a minority government which was more brutal than Assad. It was also Baathist like Assad. With this logic you should have supported the removal of the Baathist tyrant Saddam.

          Where is the accountability on the countries including our s who are partaking in this great game? (One may disagree with me in my entire thesis) I voted for Obama because he did not want to be interventionist …

    • “In this particular case,” Daryoush? The Assad regime is brutal “in this particular case?” Come on, man!

      “how do you think any country/regime would react to a Saudi/Qatar backed armed uprising on its soil?”

      Let’s get our facts straight here: the regime “reacted” with torture, disappearances, and mass-murder to peaceful protesters. That’s why this is a violent situation, and that’s why concerned neighbors are even in a position to back and “forces” in the first place.

  4. The footage in the video you posted is from Douma, not Aleppo.

  5. If Assad does command his formidable air force and army in a massive assault against his own people he will also risk international intervention. That would be in addition to the well-taken point that it will further alienate him from the Syrian people whose loyalties are now strained.

    Russia needs to take a more active leadership role to defuse the crisis, especially since they have an armed presence in Syria and Assad’s forced removal by rebels could likely dameage Russian interests.

  6. This offense looks to have the same down side as did the Tet Offensive in its day, the destruction by regular forces of rebels who try too soon to hold ground in a failed expectation of a rising in their support. The difference is that Tet contradicted the American lies of earlier destruction of the rebels. Assad did not tell those lies, and so the destruction of the rebels does not buy them the humiliation of Assad as it did LBJ.

    This was an arrogant, foolish move that will set back the rebels.

    Unless it is seen cynically as a Western move to destroy Syria in an ever deepening civil war, in order to cripple it and remove its help from Iran. In that, it succeeded. But then, it would be aimed at harming the Syrian people, not helping them as Hillary claims.

    • The Tet Offensive also largely included the heavily-armed and well-trained North Vietnamese Army, who effectively pummeled American forces with artillery barrages in the border areas with Laos and Cambodia.

      The Tet Offensve resulted in 40,000 dead and wounded for the NVA/VC forces and was considered a tactical victory for the U.S. and ARVN but a decisive psychological defeat for the Americans as well. It made the American people agonizingly aware of the intensity of the enemy and turned the attention of the U.S. public during a presidential election year to the fatc that massive amounts of war materiel, troops, and foreign aid were failing to eradicate the VC as a viable force nor effectively rein in the NVA as a threat to the South Vietnamese government.

      There is no “North Vietnamese Army” in the current Syria equation. Nor is there any significant support by the U.S. to the Free Syrian Army.

  7. As Max Weber pointed out, the succes or failure of a revolution often turns not on the behavior of the population at large, but rather the loyalty of the ruler’s “staff”–court favorites, military commanders, etc. It seems like the Assad regime, in privileging a narrower circle of Alawite’s at the expense of Sunnis, is sowing the seeds of its own imminent unraveling: paranoid that it’s legitimacy among non-Alawites is slipping, it is forced as a matter of survival to trust only “kinsmen,” thus confirming the alawite nature of the regime and weakening the allegiance of erstwhile non-alawite supporters–a self fulfilling prophecy.

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