Our intention in this report is to convey the attitude of the Syrian establishment. The following report does not reflect the opinions of the Next Century Foundation:
Fighting in Aleppo continues today, with the rebels making small gains (they took a small checkpoint) but generally being forced into a corner.
The following report is in four sections:
1. A comment from a senior Alawite member of the ruling family
2. A comment from a prominent Baath Party member
3. What the Syrian government is saying
4. What the Syrian government is doing
An Alawite perspective:
- This brief comment is from a private NCF source close to the ruling family in Syria.
“This is what the government wanted – to have an army to fight, not civilian protestors.
“The government is confident now. Or at least that’s how it seems. They view the main danger as external (from foreign powers) – not internal (from the uprising).”
A private comment from a senior Baath Party source:
· The following is from a prominent member of the Baath party who has some sympathy for the rebels. He himself is of Shiite heritage.
“Sunni propaganda, sponsored by the Gulf States, is now widespread, and Arab public opinion is turning against Syria’s Shi’a population. The Shi’a are just 1.5% of the population but the Gulf Sunnis consider them Alawite and lump them together with the larger group. Which is tough on the Shiites. Syria’s Shi’a follow the 6th Imam Jafferi. The real focus of this Sunni propaganda is political.
“The Christian population is increasingly displaced internally, as well as large communities moving to Lebanon. Tens of thousands of Christians have been displaced.
“The Al Assad family has already lost it because the Sunni response is going to be massive and the Baathists will not tolerate failure. The Sunni propaganda is so unbelievable.
“The vast majority of Syrians have now been affected by this conflict, or have friends/members of family, who have been affected by violence. At least 1.5 million have been displaced and/or lost their homes. Large areas of Homs, Damascus and Aleppo have been totally destroyed in the last 18 months. Urban areas that used to be densely populated may now have less than 10% of its original inhabitants living there.
“Some of the fighting may have been more fierce that previously thought. Some families loyal to the government have lost three to four young sons – teenagers.
“According to my sources, 3,000 rebel fighters were killed in the ‘Battle of Damascus’ alone (operation Damascus Volcano). Certain areas, such as al-Midan, Mezza and al-Louan, have been particularly affected. Fighters were sent by the opposition from most of Syria and some Arab jihadists. The Syrians are sending bulldozers to remove the rubble.
“Early Rebel claims were that they had taken 50% of Aleppo, Syria’s main commercial city. However, was never confirmed.
“However, Assad has lost almost all Sunni support. As for the Free Syria Army (FSA), it is growing stronger by the day and the Sunni population is in the ascendency. The number of defections rises everyday and this is in turn swelling the numbers of the FSA. There have now been defections from within Assad’s inner circle. For example, the former governor of Latakia, a former intelligence boss who became ambassador to Baghdad, Nawaf al-Fares, has now defected. The ambassadors to the UAE and Cyprus respectively, who are infact a married couple, have also deserted the regime. Lamia al-Hariri, the Syrian ambassador to Cyprus, is also the niece of Farouk al-Sharaa, the Syrian vice president. This is another example of how close the defectors are to Assad and how his inner circle is beginning to crumble. Those who have, for many years, profited from the Assad regime, such as industrialists and army officers, are increasingly distancing themselves from the government, as they become increasingly caught up in the conflict. The latter group are especially important, as their combat knowledge is being used to train young members of the Free Syrian Army.
“At 18, Syrian citizens not studying must serve in the armed forces. Increasingly however, young men are joining the FSA instead. It is becoming the main vehicle for young people to fight against the regime. The Free Syrian Army is growing in strength and numbers. It is increasingly well-funded by foreign powers and consists of a growing number of defectors with both military experience and arms. In the initial stages of the conflict, defectors would leave their weapons behind when they left the army, but now they are taking resources with them, from small arms to tanks (3 or 4 tanks so far). I have seen the Syrian army tanks that were fighting for the government commandeered by rebel forces in Aleppo. High-ranking army generals who defect normally move abroad, but lower-ranking soldiers and officers, young conscripts, are invariably the ones who join the FSA. The FSA is growing in power. Young officers have formed a battalion headquarters in Turkey. They have money but not a lot.
“Because the FSA has no core ideology, as such, Islam is being used symbolically. An example of this is giving Islamic names to newly created battalions, like the Abu Bakr Brigade (Abu Baker being one of the followers of the Prophet).
“When Syrians talk of a brigade they mean around 90 fighters. All Syrians do national service and so are familiar with military terminology. Our military terminology is as follows:
· Fuseila for a ten man unit
· Suriya for a thirty man unit
· Liwa (or Brigade) for a 90 man unit
· Turka (or Division) is about 30,000
· Then we have Al Faylaq which is a massive unit. What you would call an Army.
“The Salafists are not strong. Syrian society is, although conservative, predominantly secular. For this reason, it will not be possible for the Salafists to secure widespread support, although their influence may grow if the conflict continues for some time. Despite this, they will not secure any long-term power at all. Groups like Syria’s 3% Ismaelis, 3% Druze and 10% Christians will never support the rebels. These people can never become Salafist, not even if we have to wait until Christ’s return. Similarly the Baathists will never become Salafists. No real Syrian will welcome them. They are not in control of their own policies or agenda. Most of the 13 to 16 year olds joining to fight with the Salafists are being given money if they fight non-Muslims.
“Al-Qaeda fighters in Syria are the most well-funded and experienced currently operating within the rebel movement. They may fight alongside, as well as be in competition with, the FSA. In essence, the FSA are the opposition group that will have the most influence in the long-term. They have the support of 30% of the Sunni population and it’s growing. The government is seemingly losing control. If Bashar stays on for the next five years he will end up just having control of his own palace. The increasingly extreme use of the military force, with heavy weaponry, demonstrates this disintegration. Assad has lost control of much of the countryside and has left much of the cities in ruins. 70% of Old Dera’a has been destroyed (though New Dera’a down by the station has not been much affected). Azaz in Aleppo province, the whole city has been destroyed.
“They will start working for partition.
“Having said that, for the first time the real fight has begun. We have hauled a division up from the Golan. We have regained Damascus. They can rebuild. If Assad steps down now, Syria will fragment. He and his government is the last thing holding the country together. Assad inherited Syria as a single state, and is determined to keep it this way. No demands for federalism or autonomous regions will be accepted. The minority populations face no future in a post-Assad Syria, which would be predominately Sunni. They are the majority.
“The Kurds and Alawites make it difficult to have a transitional government if the regime keeps fighting. The Kurds have already begun the battle for an independent state, whilst the Alawites may eventually consider autonomy for themselves. Democracy is the only possible positive outcome, the only answer, and will not lead to widespread support for Salafism. The Syrian people are secular. I would love Syria to be a democracy and to see the Baath Party competing on an equal footing with everyone else. 90% of Syrians are well educated and are conservative in outlook, much like the West was fifty years ago. The Syrian people will never embrace Salafist ideas. Sheikh Hamad (Qatar) and the Saudis cannot influence the Syrians. Democracy will have great benefits for Syria. Al Qaida has no foothold in Syria. And the Baath Party can be cleansed by democracy and its original idealistic agenda can re-emerge.”
What the Syrian Government is saying:
Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government shocked the west by threatening to use its arsenal of chemical weapons if outside forces intervened in its civil war. Government spokesmen previously denied it had weapons of mass destruction. But the authorities struck back fiercely after concerns were expressed at reports by US intelligence that they had begun to move their stocks.
“Syria will not use any chemical or other unconventional weapons against its civilians, and will only use them in case of external aggression,” Jihad Makdissi, the chief government spokesman, said. “Any stocks of chemical weapons that may exist, will never, ever be used against the Syrian people,” he said, adding that in the event of foreign attack, “the generals will be deciding when and how we use them.” He also rejected a demand by the Arab League that Mr Assad step down, after the group called on him to “renounce power”, promising him a “safe exit”.
On 23 July 2012, The Syrian Foreign Ministry said the country has chemical or biological weapons, but would never use them against its citizens - only against foreign attackers. "Any stocks of (weapons of mass destruction) or any unconventional weapon that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses would never be used against civilians or against the Syrian people during this crisis at any circumstance, no matter how the crisis would evolve," ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters. "All the stocks of these weapons that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses are monitored and guarded by the Syrian army. These weapons are meant to be used only and strictly in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic," he said.
Syrian authorities later tried to backtrack on the chemical weapons comments, saying their words were taken out of context.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group, reported helicopter attacks on the central Salaheddine district of Aleppo and violent clashes elsewhere in the city. Syrian official media has been saying that rebels failed in Damascus and are now trying to turn Aleppo “into a den of terrorism.”
The Syrian foreign minister, Syrian Foreign Minister Dr Walid Mua’alem, whose recent visit to Tehran on 29th July was unscheduled and unannounced, spoke with with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi about the situation in his country. On Aleppo he said, “We believe that all the anti-Syrian forces have gathered in Aleppo to fight the government...and they will definitely be defeated.” Syria and Iran accuse several countries in the region, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, of aiding the rebels in their fight against Al Assad’s forces. “Syria is the target of a global plot whose agents are the countries in the region,” Mua’alem said. “The reality is that, for a month now, there has been a propaganda war waged by the United States, Europe and certain Arab countries”.
Mua’alem also denied media reports that the regime of President Bashar Al Assad would use chemical weapons against the opposition. “We have faced such media smear campaigns by the West and Arab countries in recent days, but unlike Israel and its nuclear arsenal, we are against any weapons of mass destruction and respect and follow international regulations in this regard,” he said.
What the Government is doing:
Most of the fighting over the past week is concentrated in Aleppo, with some clashes also going on in Dara’a and Homs. In Damascus, the Syrian government has achieved a victory against the rebels, with Walid Moualem boasting it took the government less than a week to inflict this defeat. In Aleppo, a week of shelling and bombing has now been followed by the use of a ground assault as well (since Saturday). However, the use of airpower by the government continues, with reports of helicopter gunships, missiles and MiG fighter jets. The BBC claims 200,000 people have fled Aleppo in the past two days, in a report allegedly sourced to the Syrian Red Crescent but that remains unsubstantiated (there is no such report on the Red Crescent website and the BBC’s only source is a second hand comment by Baroness Amos in Washington that seems to be little more than a guess). Much of the fighting in Aleppo is centred around the Salah al-Din (or Salaheddin or Salaheddine) area. There is a war of words between the government and the rebels as to who is currently (as of Monday) in control of the neighbourhood and both sides strongly want to convey the impression that they are. British media has reported on a rebel victory at a military checkpoint in Anadan, which rebels claim will make it easier to connect Aleppo to the Turkish border (though that may be overstating the importance of what is a small victory in a generally bleak situation). The Syrian media are portraying the rebels in Aleppo as gangs and have listed a number of “gang leaders” they say they have killed. They also stress that some of the people they are fighting are “not of Syrian nationality”.
The Syrian government say that they are dealing with terrorist groups crossing the borders from neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon. The Syrian government claims that “terrorists” were killed on the border with Turkey.
The Guardian website runs live updates on Syria and has recently claimed that a Syrian brigadier general, who was deputy chief of police in the Latakia region, has defected to Turkey.