Today in “How we know that Bashar Assad is winning”

A day after Syrian government troops captured Qara, a small but strategically important village situated on the main road between Damascus and Homs, the rebels have responded:

Four suicide car bombs have struck Syrian regime targets in the Qalamoun region north of Damascus, killing at least seven soldiers, a monitor and state news agency SANA said.

Wednesday’s attacks come a day after troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad drove rebels from the nearby strategic village of Qara.

The attacks were claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Nusra Front, two Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.

Have a heaping helping of speculation, below!

Suicide bombing is a tool of asymmetric warfare, used by heavily outgunned belligerents to try to even the odds a bit. These are groups like the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Hezbollah in then-occupied southern Lebanon, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Algerians in French-colonized Algeria, the Uyghurs in China, the Viet Minh, Nihilists in Tsarist Russia, etc. There is an ideological or even religious element to it (obviously; it would be difficult to convince someone to perpetrate an attack that was certain to kill them in the process without some strong ideological or religious commitment on their part). It can be very effective; suicide attacks are difficult to stop and, particularly when they strike soft/civilian targets, they can be pretty terrifying, enough to maybe change a country’s policy (in that light, the recent suicide strike on the Iranian embassy in Beirut, meant to encourage Iran and its Hezbollah proxies to get out of the Syrian fight, makes some sense even though it won’t work). Robert Pape, whose research has its critics and I’m not going to hash through that debate even if I were qualified to do so, does note (and this seems pretty fair to me) that suicide bombing’s most effective use is in compelling modern democracies to give up occupations or otherwise disengage from someplace or another. The real target is not the people who are directly attacked, or the government of the democracy itself, but the democracy’s citizenry, whose horror over the attacks then reduces the democracy’s will to keep doing whatever it’s doing.

What suicide bombing isn’t particularly good for is winning civil wars between equally matched sides. Wars are about achieving objectives beyond just reducing one side’s will to fight; I mean, that’s an important goal, but if you keep losing territory then it doesn’t really matter how melancholy you make the other side, they’re still winning. Jabhat and ISIS can crow to their men about the government soldiers they killed in Qalamoun, maybe even pick up some new recruits on the back of this operation, but at the end of the day Assad still controls the road to Homs and that’s what really matters. Maybe they’ve harmed the army’s morale a little, but at this point Assad is down to the true believers anyway, the guys who keep fighting for him because it’s in their best interests, because they either support Assad or they fear the alternative (say, a Syria run by Jabhat al-Nusrah) worse. Assad sure as hell isn’t going to give up; he knows what happens once he’s forced from power. Now, if these attacks were aimed at softening up Assad’s forces in advance of a real campaign to retake Qara, then maybe they’d make some tactical sense, but I’m guessing they’re not. An otherwise defeated rebellion might be able to force the dominant government side to open peace talks this way, but it’s not going to actually win the war. If the rebels are being reduced to the tactics of asymmetrical warfare, then it’s a fair assessment that they’re no longer on equal footing with Assad’s forces.

There’s one other way that these Qalamoun attacks demonstrate that Assad has the upper hand; there’s no Free Syrian Army or Syrian National Council fingerprints anywhere near them. If the insurgency has turned entirely to groups like Jabhat and ISIS to sustain it, then whatever support it has been getting from the West is going to dry up pretty quickly.


3 thoughts on “Today in “How we know that Bashar Assad is winning”

  1. Let us agree that the situation in NAME is harsh and not likely amenable to westernist interventionism. Let us also agree that the reconquest of Kiska was a triumph of small unit tactics with competent strategic direction. (Um, do we so agree?)

    My further understanding of the Russian nihilists is that they failed utterly in achieving their political goals, while western nihilists/anarchists/socialists balanced campaigns of modest threats of violence against positive campaigns towards genuine reforms of really existing capitalism and played a constructive role in generating the modern consensus that held up to 1980.

    1. D’oh!

      It goes without saying that Assad is winning in Syria, which is the battleground for those of us who do not occupy abstract battle spaces.

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