Syria being a strategic country in the Middle East—it has a significant population and sits on important commercial and military crossroads—we are unlikely to see the ongoing war continuing for much longer. Both sides in the conflict have mighty allies, who are helping their protégées. Both sides can claim victories.
In the last days of August 2012, the Syrian government seems to be regaining control of Aleppo, the country’s main trade center. On the other hand, the rebels conducted successful attacks at the heart of Damascus, the country’s capital, which was supposed to be safe under the protection of the Republican Guard, Syria’s Army elite unit. At a certain point one side may decide to withdraw before sustaining heavy damages; or, one side may give a lucky strike and decapitate its opponent.
A solution in which the regime is exchanged peacefully is unlikely; as pointed out in It’s Too Late for Assad’s Resignation, this conflict runs also along ethnic lines. Assad is an Alawite, while most of the country’s population is Sunni. For years, the government and army gave advantages to Alawites. All of the Syrian Army pilots are Alawites, as is much of the Republican Guard.
If the Free Syrian Army surrenders, everything will look like before; the mercenaries will be mysteriously swallowed by the western desert that had earlier vomited them out. However, if the Assad regime decides “to improve its positions backwards” (polite “militarese” for “withdrawal”), a different scenario is likely to happen. It will be defined by the nature of this regime in general, and the Republican Guard in particular.
Without knowing the secret behind them, it is very difficult to understand the activities of special units. The latest event along this line I commented upon dealt with the placement of cameras and beamers by the IDF in Lebanon, near Beirut. They were discovered last year by Hezbollah, and Lebanon formally complained to the UN.
Such operations are routinely performed by an IDF unit named Shaldag (“kingfisher” in Hebrew), a spin-off of Sayeret Matkal. The latter is the General Headquarters Commando Unit, to which Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak belonged. The people chosen for these units often possess unusual capabilities.
One of the Kingfisher soldiers I knew had studied with me in the same high-school. He was slightly deformed. His legs were like thin sticks; his arms belonged to a superhero. At the age of 15, he climbed a rope effortlessly all the way up to the gymnasium’s ceiling without using his legs.
After the class was over, he did that three times in a row; he kept chatting all the time and easily won the bet (a moneyless bet; in our Communist kibbutzim money was a reactionary term). He was perfect for a military unit heavily dependent on helicopters and motorbikes.
Ehud Barak has an unimpressive body; yet, he can easily open any lock, at least those used until a generation ago. This is impressive and explains their technical capabilities, but is not enough to forge the loyalty needed to perform operations behind enemy lines, where you must trust your fellow soldier with your life. An additional ingredient is needed.
Syrian Inner Circle
Such loyalty must be forged. One way of achieving this is by creating mutual dependence among the fighters. The easiest and cheapest way to accomplish that relies on hidden—but real—threats. Invariably, these soldiers watch each other perform crimes; they possess so much embarrassing knowledge about each other that—if I may use a sarcastic form of this phrase—they become “blood brothers.”
This explains the oddly polite relationship between Barak and Netanyahu despite the bitter political rivalry between them. The Syrian Republican Guard is the parallel of the IDF elite units with a twist, they also perform bodyguard tasks. They are the only military unit allowed into Damascus, and sum up a full division, roughly 10,000 soldiers. Nowadays, the unit is led by Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher. The guard’s loyalty is enhanced also by ethnic considerations.
The point is simple. Since the conflict is also ethnic, the losers can’t leave anybody behind. If Assad’s regime surrenders, the Republican Guard cannot be dismantled quietly. It cannot blend into the population. Alawite men of certain age and looks would automatically be tagged as “Former Republican Guard” and will be dealt with violently by the new regime.
Any evacuation plan by Assad must take into account the Republican Guard; he can’t split it, he can’t dismantle it. Assad knows that the only way to ensure the loyalty of those who will provide the military security he needs for the evacuation will demand the safety of all his blood brothers.
The Syrian Gambit
Understanding this, what is needed for a safe evacuation is clear. The aerial route is unlikely to be chosen. To transport well over 10,000 people (the Republican Guard and the core of the Assad Administration) quietly and safely is almost impossible.
It would be such a temptation for Israel to strike such a convoy, that it is better not to put this to a test. The safest approach would be for Assad to move overland to the northeastern part of his territory, which is controlled by Kurds.
From there, he may create an enclave from where to conduct the resistance, move to the Shi’a parts of Iraq, or even reach Iran. These options would be feasible. Since the beginning of 2012, two clear signs of this plan has emerged.
In recent months, Bashar al-Assad gave benefits to Kurds living in Syria; thousands of them got their citizenship after waiting for many years. In recent weeks, the Syrian government withdrew troops from the Kurdish northeast and sent them into the areas controlled by rebels.
The safety of the move may have been underlined by further promises to the Kurds. This assures the safety of the path to be followed. Another critical point is the loyalty of those who follow Assad.
Those familiar with the situation in Syria probably shouted “Manaf Tlass!,” when I commented on the loyalty expected from the Republican Guard. Until he resigned in July, he was a Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard and member of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle.
He is the son of the former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass and overall a very prominent figure in the Syrian Administration. His resignation was presented as a win for the rebels.
However, it was unlikely to be so. He is too linked to the Assad regime—including with the first president of the dynasty—to be safe after his resignation.
What determined his fate—and of others in the Guard—is his being Sunni. As such, he couldn’t be trusted for the delicate task Assad is apparently planning and was dismissed. Everything looks nice and tight for an emergency plan, except for one thing.
Moving such a mass of people and the core equipment needed for the new administration overland is not easy. Such a convoy takes time and space. It will be seen by a million predatory eyes. It can be intercepted in a million ways before it finds a haven. Assad must make sure that the most probable organization capable of blocking his move would be neutralized for a while. The IDF will for sure attempt to destroy such a convoy.
Recently, the IDF acknowledged it cannot deal with massive destruction of industrial and civilian infrastructure (see IDF: Home Front Command not ready for war with Iran). This is particularly grave due to the highly poisonous qualities of some of Israel’s industrial areas.
This gives Assad an opportunity. The Republican Guard is responsible for the operation of chemical and biological weapons; Syria and Israel are among the largest owners of these in the world. If Assad decides to relocate out of Damascus, he will probably make sure a large distraction keeps the IDF busy. In another odd distortion of the phrase, Israel and Syria would become blood brothers.
Tov Roy, http://www.roitov.com