Assad's Fall Is Inevitable, But Likely to be Slow, Analysts Say

The Assad regime in Syria is crumbling and its downfall is inevitable, but the process could be long and bloody, according to analyses provided to Israeli intelligence agencies. Analysts expect the war to rage on as the Syrian army gradually loses its grip, fueling simmering local and regional conflicts.

The Syrian army is suffering losses. Thirty of its soldiers were laid to rest in the past week alone. Among the casualties were a number of officers, some of them of high rank, some of them Alawis (the minority group of Assad’s clan). It's not only on the battlefield that they find their death. In fact, they are hunted down by the dissident rebels. Thus, they may be killed by a sniper lying in ambush on their way out in the morning or when taking their children to school, cold-bloodedly murdered along with any family members that happen to accompany them. The atrocities perpetrated by the Syrian army and the Shabiha (a shadowy militia reportedly used by Bashar al-Assad in his brutal crackdown on the opposition) as, for instance, the carnage in the village of Houla [in the Homs province, May 25], are said to be, in part, actions of vendetta: Ten children massacred in retribution for the killing of the son of a Syrian army officer.

The Alawi community in Syria is sending out distress signals. Its members engage in intensive discourse on the community social websites, which revolves around the life or death struggle they are waging. They are talking there about mourning, bereavement, fear and revenge. Virtually every Alawi family has at least one member in the security forces. Weapons are held as a matter of routine in every such household. The Alawi community is getting ready to defend itself, physically. Rumors are circulating on the Internet about Alawi militias, which may have already been set up with the purpose of eliminating the Syrian President's rivals in the opposition.

The above selection of data is but a minor, yet representative sample taken from the stream of information regarding life in Syria accumulated by the research bodies of the various Israeli Intelligence agencies — "Aman" (Israel Defense Forces' Intelligence Branch), the "Mossad" (the national intelligence agency of Israel) etc. The Israeli Intelligence community is busy collecting and analyzing pieces of Syrian life in an attempt to understand the goings-on there and forecast the fate awaiting Assad.

One of the most sensitive sensors in this area of data collection and analysis is located at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is the Center for Political Research, a relatively unknown body employing dozens of researchers that focuses on the civilian, political, national and economic affairs in the neighboring countries. As expected, in the past year, the situation in Syria has been at the center of attention. One of Israel's veteran ambassadors who served for 11 years in Arab countries, is in charge of the Syrian issue, and he is assisted by another former ambassador who spent eight years in Arab countries. The two not only study the information gathered on the theoretical level, but personally know some of the personages involved — or, at least, their clan — and are well acquainted with the social and cultural reality behind the dry Intelligence information.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry researchers have never expected the imminent fall of Assad. On the contrary, from day one, since the unrest flared up, they anticipated a lengthy period of bloody riots in Syria. However, they have no doubt whatsoever: Bashar will eventually fall. Or, as David Waltzer, the Director of the Center for Political Research puts it: "The sheer fact that for the past year and five months Assad failed to quell the rebellion has decided his fate. In regimes of this kind, the fact that people are not caving in, but rather keep taking to the streets in protest against the regime, although they know perfectly well that they may never return home, serves to further enhance the feelings of solidarity among the citizens. As far as Assad is concerned, it's a one-way road leading to his inevitable end."

While advising against Israeli intervention in the events in Syria, the Foreign Ministry Center for Political Research has suggested all along that a policy advocating the toppling of Assad's regime would be in the interest of Israel, as the Syrian President and his regime are considered one of the cornerstones of the "axis of evil" consisting of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Thus, the collapse of Assad and his regime would naturally serve the Israeli interests, including those related to the Iranian nuclear issue.

All international plans vave come to naught

In the year and five months since the beginning of the Syrian uprising more than 16,000 fatalities have been recorded in Syria — 15,000 of them, common civilians and armed opposition supporters, while some 1,200 are Syrian army men. Nobody knows how many have been wounded on each side; however, their number is estimated at tens of thousands.

The number of deserters from the Syrian army is estimated at 12,000 to 13,000, most of them of the rank-and-file, ordinary soldiers who simply fled service to go back home. About 700 to 800 of the deserters are officers. Some of them, mainly the skilled fighters, have crossed the lines to the other side, joining forces with the rebels. It should be noted in passing that when Syrian army officers are putting to death soldiers who defected, it is unclear what their families are being told, but as far as the army is concerned they are counted as war casualties.

It is unclear how many armed rebels are taking part in the uprising, since their deployment is regionally controlled and there is no central body to coordinate their activity on the state level. According to a very rough estimate, there are some 20,000 armed insurgents fighting the army forces. About 25,000 have been put in jail since the eruption of the riots.

All research bodies believe that the situation will go from bad to worse and, in fact, envisage an even bloodier situation in Syria, all the more so in the absence of any foreign initiative in the offing which could lead to some sort of solution to ongoing conflict there. The compromise (peace) plan proposed by former Secretary-General of the United Nations and currently, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Kofi Annan seeking to enforce a cease-fire across Syria has come to naught following the Houla massacre. The earlier joint American-Turkish plan has also proven fruitless. It is not for nothing that the Americans courted the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He was the senior partner in Washington's attempt to exert military pressure on Damascus with the aim of inducing the Alawi elite to replace the Syrian President with another member of the Alawi sect.

The Americans really believed that they could pull it off. However, Erdoğan failed to fulfill his part of the deal and opted out. The United States has thus realized, alas, belatedly, what's known in Israel for long: Erdoğan will mostly bark. He will be stirred into action only when hurt by Syrian-based operatives of the PKK underground.

It seems that the Americans have lost confidence in their regional foreign policy. Following their failures in Libya and Egypt, they have adopted an even more conservative line and they are currently insisting on upholding the Alawi regime in Syria, as a safeguard assuring stability in the country. All they care about is that it be a pro-American regime, associated in an alliance with Ankara and dissociated from Teheran and Hezbollah.

The American contacts with the Russians on the implementation of the "Yemenite model", which would enable the ousting of Assad, have led nowhere, as each of the sides means something else. In other words, as they say at the Center for Political Research, the parties are "talking Chinese." For the Russians, the "Yemenite model" means, first and foremost, a dialogue between the Syrian opposition and the regime. For the Americans, it means expelling Assad from the country first.

The Russians are already taking steps in anticipation of the post-Assad era. The Russian Bank for Foreign Trade has announced its intention to close Syrian-owned bank accounts, as it expects their owners to default on their obligations. At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has declared that Russia is committed to stability rather than to Assad himself or to his regime.

As a matter of fact, the Russian side is adding some weird ingredients to the Syrian mess. Thus, a number of far-right conferences have been held in Russia recently under the heading "Red Army Veterans Having Served in Syria Mobilizing for Syria." The elements behind the initiative maintain that the collapse of Assad would entail an Islamic or, alternatively, a Western imperialistic deluge liable to flood Russia. They have therefore set out to form battalions of volunteers that would reinforce the Syrian army. For the time being, they are not taken too seriously.

Meanwhile, although never formally announced, a bloody civil war is raging in Syria. It is an all-out war with no distinct front lines. Clashes between armed gangs are waged all over. Some of the attacks launched on sensitive security installations of the Syrian army, including the attack in the north-eastern Kalamoon neighborhood of Damascus, are attributed to the "rescue army," the collective name used to designate various al-Qaeda-type groups associated with the Iraqi branch of the terror organization.

Ironically, during the Gulf War, the Americans implored Assad not to allow these armed groups to get organized on Syrian land and infiltrate from Syria into Iraq. Now, they are moving in the reverse direction with the intention of attacking the Syrian President and his regime.

Another paradox concerns the Lebanese-Syrian switching of roles: This time around, it's Lebanon that is sending troops and arms to unstable Syria (role played by Syria in Lebanon following the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. What's more, former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who currently resides in Paris, is equipping the opposition in Syria with arms.

The Syrians, for their part, are suspicious of the Jordanians as well. A few weeks ago, Jordanian King Abdullah organized a regional conference in Aqaba "to discuss the future of our region." Furthermore, a joint American-Jordanian military maneuver dubbed "Eager Lion" was held about a month ago. The Syrians were furious, and the Syrian government announced that it had confiscated lands along the Syrian border with Jordan and was building fortifications along the border against a possible Jordanian invasion.

As of late, Syrian rebels have been armed by Turkey and Qatar, mainly with light arms. However, the massive support is granted them by the Saudis. Assad's failure to crush them strengthens their self-confidence and encourages them to mount ever more daring attacks against his regime.

In recent days, an Intelligence installation was hit in the suburbs of Damascus and the personnel manning it sustained injuries. In another instance, the opposition forces managed to seize control of an anti-aircraft missile base. The rebels are attacking military airports as well, and Israel is closely watching their achievements, on the Golan Heights as well.

The sizzling arena has been joined in recent weeks by armed bands that used to roam Syria in the past. However, in their modern-day incarnation they are far more violent. These are Hezbollah hit squads and similar units — rather small, but extremely murderous — arriving on the scene from Iran. At the same time, Hezbollah operatives are training Syrian army units in guerrilla warfare, while the Iranians are contributing their share with tactical Intelligence gathering.

Hezbollah, for which Syria is the best political investment, is concerned about the "day after." In preparation for that day, Hezbollah units are seizing control on stores of armaments of all sorts, including Scud D missiles and anti-aircraft missiles, with the aim of moving them to Lebanon. The only thing that keeps Secretary-General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah from doing so is the fear that Israel would bomb the stockpile of weapons hoarded by the terror organization once moved across the border.

The wealthy look on

Regardless of the spreading anarchy and despite the fact that Assad is gradually losing control over ever-larger areas of the country, Intelligence forecasts are not predicting his imminent collapse. Assessments talk of further erosion of his standing, but not of any dramatic turnaround in the near future.

At the Foreign Ministry Center for Political Research, Assad is ranked sixth on a stability scale of 1-10. The trend points downward, but the fall is still far off. Saddam Hussein, too, they point out at the Center for Political Research, managed to cling to his seat and hold on to power for many years, even under heavy international pressure and despite the fact that his army had been devastated on the battlefield. The same holds true for Assad. As long as he enjoys legitimacy in the eyes of the military and, at least, part of his people and has the Russians, the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Iranians on his side, Assad can go on ruling, if not over the entire country, then at least over large parts of Syria. And he is unlikely to lose his seat over a faltering economic situation, certainly not when the Iranians are propping him up and well-heeled Syrian immigrants who have made their wealth abroad and remain closely associated with the regime in Damascus assure him of a steady stream of funds.

Analyses of the bloody clashes in Syria made by the Foreign Ministry researchers reveal a dominant pattern: The confrontation is taking place primarily in the towns and villages of the periphery. Last week, it was the turn of the Latakia province in the northwestern part of Syria to go through the horror of yet another massacre in the seemingly endless series of mass killings, when the Syrian army attacked the town of Al-Haffa.

In virtually all cases, the carnage has its origins in some local vendetta. It is interesting to note in this context that work papers prepared by the Research Department of "Aman" in the early days of the conflict point to blood feuds as a characteristic phenomenon expected to typify (and trigger) the violent events in Syria.

The Damascus metropolitan area and that of Halab (the ancient name of Aleppo in northern Syria), including their satellite towns and villages, are home to a population of some ten million out of Syria's 23 million inhabitants. So far, these two urban centers, where the upper middle class, including the Sunni elite, reside have been spared, remaining practically unscathed by the bloody events. No wonder then that large parts of the Syrian public are still loyal to their President, even today, when reports are circulating on violent incidents in the far-off suburbs of the two cities.

The upper class, accounting for four to five percent of the Syrian population, is in control of all of Syria's wealth. Notwithstanding the economic crisis, the upper echelons of the civil service and the Sunni big-business elite have so far remained untouched. And that's why the United Nations, pressured by the United States, is calling for imposing economic sanctions on Syria.

Still, at the Israeli Foreign Ministry Research Center they give the Syrian opposition a chance. It takes time to build a strong opposition worthy of its name in a country that has been living for so many years under oppression, they note at the Research Center.

As far as Israel is concerned, the current situation is not posing, as yet, any tangible threat that requires action on its part beyond closely monitoring the events across the border. However, at the moment of truth the picture may radically change: The arsenals of unconventional weapons and ballistic missile systems accumulated in Syria are liable to be put into action and endanger the entire region.

We are slowly but surely approaching that moment of truth, but we are still not there — definitely not.

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נמצא ב: us, syria, russia, mfa, israel, iran

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