Dr. Jonathan Spyer, GLORIA Center senior fellow, has just returned from Syria where he met with oppositionists, members of the Free Syrian Army, and local inhabitants. Here’s his first interview on his experiences and observations.
Barry Rubin: Dr. Spyer, please tell us about your visit to Syria, what you saw and your impressions.
Jonathan Spyer: Well, I spent a week in Idleb province, traveling between a number of different towns. The most striking aspect was the extent of de facto control that the opposition and Free Syrian Army (FSA) have in this area. A number of towns are now entirely under their control, with FSA roadblocks at the entrance and the rebel flag flying everywhere. At the same time, it’s of course clear that the government still has intelligence networks inside the “liberated” towns, and will reconquer them if possible at a later date.
Barry Rubin: Many observers claim that the Bashar al-Assad regime will fall soon. What do the opposition activists think and what is your view?
Jonathan Spyer: The many opposition activists and fighters that I spoke to seem to be rather torn in their attitude. On the one hand, I heard none of the facile optimism that one heard among some analysts in the first months of the uprising, describing Bashar’s fall as imminent. The opposition activists understand that with the support of Iran, Russia, China and Hizballah, the regime can continue for some time to come, even if it is bleeding resources and losing manpower to the rebel army. The opposition is acutely aware of its own international isolation compared to the regime, and repeat endlessly the call for a buffer zone, and for the beginnings of Western support for arming the FSA.
At the same time, looking more broadly, the oppositionists are optimistic that they will ultimately prevail, but a number of them told me that without international assistance to their side to balance and offset the international coalition behind Assad, the situation could drag on for months or even years.
Barry Rubin: How important are revolutionary Islamists in the opposition? Can you explain about the larger — perhaps largest — group, traditional Sunnis?
Jonathan Spyer: In Idleb province, where I was, there was an undoubted presence of Salafi Islamists among the FSA fighters. But they were not a majority, and I certainly had no indication at all of the presence of foreign Islamist fighters. These were clearly local men. The regime, of course, has been keen to say that the opposition to it consists of al-Qaida. I would advise skepticism toward any claims made by the Assad regime.
However, Idleb province is a very traditional, religious Sunni area. There is undoubtedly a strong sectarian element to the fury and hatred that people have toward the Assad regime. People stress that this does not extend to ordinary Alawi or Shia Syrians, but I would counsel caution regarding this. So I don’t think Salafi Islamism is dominating the revolt, even in very traditional and religious places like Idleb. But at the same time, there is a strong religious and sectarian motivation among the rebels. You won’t be surprised to learn that the number of secular humanists in Idleb province is rather small.
Barry Rubin: What were your observations about the Free Syrian Army?
Jonathan Spyer: The FSA is really a name for what is in fact a large number of independent militias organized around local strongmen. No one seems to regard the notional FSA leadership in Antakya, Turkey, as the actual center of the organization. Rather, the militias operate according to their own interests and vary in numbers and qualities from town to town. In Sarmeen, where I was, for example, the FSA is commanded by a 25-year-old former lieutenant in Assad’s airborne forces, and gives the impression of being a serious force. In Bini’ish, a neighboring town, the impression is one of a more thrown-together, improvised force.
In terms of weaponry, they have rifles, heavy machine guns, RPG-7s and mortars. These weapons would have great difficulty standing up to a frontal assault from Assad’s advanced Russian armor. Many FSA men that I spoke to understand that they would be unable to defend the “free zones” if these were attacked in force, and they talk more in terms of a long-term strategy of guerrilla warfare to wear down the regime.
Barry Rubin: Why is there a debate in the opposition about whether or not to engage in armed struggle?
Jonathan Spyer: There are voices in the opposition who from the beginning had been concerned that armed struggle was an arena in which the rebels couldn’t win, and it would enable Assad to portray them as terrorists, al-Qaida, and so on. But such voices are heard less and less. Most people understand that whatever the merits of such an argument, it is too late. The people in insurgent areas regard the FSA as their protectors, and have a very clear and evident emotional loyalty to the Jaish al-Hurr (Free Army) which they don’t feel toward the political opposition, which is more or less irrelevant.
Regarding armed struggle, then, this issue is now a done deal. The armed opposition to Assad is in many ways the most significant element of the uprising. In terms of power on the ground, when the government forces leave an area, the people who get to make decisions are the ones who control the armed element, for obvious reasons. It’s worth remembering that this is Syria. The way the current regime came into existence in the first place is because many years ago the military element in the Syrian Baath Party started to wonder why it was taking orders from the civilian political element and decided to stop doing so. Hence the Alawi officers Salah Jadid and then Hafez al-Assad came to run the country. I am not trying at all to say that the FSA is emerging as a contender for power, but merely that the militias on the ground fighting Assad are a fact, and there is no question of them ceasing activities voluntarily while Assad remains in power.
Barry Rubin: Please explain why the opposition is asking for international help to create a “safe haven” and how this might work.
Jonathan Spyer: The opposition is asking for a buffer zone where refugees can flee and from where the FSA can organize. Precedents would include northern Iraq in the 1990s and Libya recently. Such a zone would be almost certain to involve the deployment of Western air power, again as in Libya, as well as a program of Western support to the FSA to turn it from a collection of militias into a serious force.
Of course, it is unimaginable that the UN would approve such an initiative, since Assad’s ally Russia would prevent this. At present, there stands a de facto international coalition behind Assad, including Iran, Russia, China and Hizballah. The question now is whether this coalition will ensure that Assad will maintain his grip on power, or whether a Western-led counter-coalition will offer support tor the FSA and help create a buffer zone, thus making the dictator’s fall more likely. The future of Syria may well depend on the answer to this question.