Part 1 of this series, which focuses on the political aspect of the conflict, is here. Part 2 looks at the military dimension.
Civil wars are never clean wars (if there is such a thing), and the Syria conflict has proven no exception.
It is reminiscent in some ways of the Lebanese civil war in the way it has upset the sectarian system, opening the country to becoming a battleground for broader regional rivalries: the Gulf states and Turkey trying to reassert Sunni primacy as Iran struggles to maintain Persian influence in the Arab world, and the West hoping to topple a stridently anti-Western autocrat as Russia seeks to prop up its last remaining Arab ally (and a valuable arms client).
The opposition, despite external moral, logistic and financial support, has been unable to secure the advanced weaponry it claims it needs to negate the Syrian Army's firepower. The unwillingness of major Western backers to provide such weapons reveals the rebels' twin Achilles heels: the participation by Islamic jihadist groups in the armed opposition and the absence of effective, centralised military control despite efforts to appoint such a body.
The performance of the Syrian military has suffered from the fact that it is largely a conscript force with a legacy of years of reliance on Russian/Soviet approaches to warfare.
The first issue means that the training standard of a large part of Assad's army is poor, and its ability to re-skill for the type of urban fighting that has been a feature of this conflict is severely retarded. It also means that large parts of the army are there because they have to be, not because they want to be. This can be problematic when fighting external enemies, but can be debilitating in a civil war. Poor training standards and questionable loyalty means static defence of ground takes a higher priority than manoeuvre, which in turn cedes the initiative to the enemy.
The Syrian Army's performance also shows the folly of structuring for the war you think you're going to fight. The Syrian military saw itself fighting a land battle a la Golan Heights 1967, and spent decades lolling around in Lebanon while its senior officers enjoyed the financial benefits of such duties.
Sedentary occupation duties do little for initiative, while a heavy reliance on mechanised forces with an equally heavy reliance on firepower to neutralise concentrations of enemy forces leads one to lean towards using a hammer to swat a fly. Against small groups of fighters in urban areas, such 'manoeuvring by fire' tactics are of limited effectiveness. The Syrian military has been slow to learn, although when you are wary of the willingness of your own forces to press attacks, standing back while you pummel targets with rockets, artillery and aircraft has its own distorted military logic.
The rebels appear to have achieved some degree of coordination, as demonstrated by their focus on attacking Syrian air bases (in recognition of the threat these bases pose). The fall of Taftanaz in January this year and the ongoing siege of Mannagh air base are cases in point.
The battles for large urban centres such as Aleppo continue. The Syrian military has identified Damascus as its vital ground and has invested its most reliable formations in a counterattack to reclaim the suburb of Daraya from rebel control while it tries to hold its positions in other areas with its less polished units, auxiliaries and allies.
While the war remains at a stalemate, the momentum is largely with the opposition. The head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, has begun opening the door for negotiations with the regime, but Assad remains defiant. The spring weather will make it easier to manoeuvre around Syria and may lead to greater advances by one side or the other. There is likely to be more fighting in the months ahead before any substantive negotiations take place. The Lebanese civil war did last 15 years, after all.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.