Gauging the Syrian Conflict

8 MINS READApr 9, 2014 | 09:33 GMT
Gauging the Syrian Conflict
The result of regime airstrikes in rebel-held Aleppo, Syria, on April 4.

The ongoing conflict in Syria has surpassed expectations in terms of duration, intensity, casualties and population displacement. The tenacity of conventional forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad stalled the rebellion, which suffered from internal disputes and restricted logistics. The resulting stalemate has lasted for years, with neither side able to make decisive gains over the other. 

The regime holds a clear advantage in the coastal regions, in the city and province of Homs and in the greater Damascus area. The rebels have the advantage in the cities and provinces of Raqqah, Deir el-Zour and Daraa, while Aleppo remains in the balance. The war will continue unabated for at least the next year, though there are several variables and indicators that can be monitored, serving as early signals that either side is breaking the current stalemate in its favor.

In Syria, the Regime Reverses Some Rebel Gains

Syria with Military cities

Aided by rebel infighting and bolstered by foreign support from Russia and Iran, the Syrian regime was able to reverse a string of early losses at the beginning of 2013, moving to an offensive posture and making headway in a number of key provinces. Despite pushing forward aggressively, various constraints prevented loyalist forces from retaking crucial swathes of the countryside and significant rebel strongholds.
Government forces remain locked in heavy combat against rebel elements spread across the western half of the country. In many cases, this combat has settled into siege warfare on both sides. In cities such as Aleppo, the fighting has become entrenched urban combat with hardened and consistent frontlines.  

Strengths and Constraints

Both sides have marked advantages and disadvantages that have shaped how they fight. So far, the overall balance of these factors has predominantly resulted in a battle of attrition, offensive and counteroffensive, with limited instances of maneuver warfare. Such factors and variables are not conclusive, but by monitoring them it is possible to foresee how the conflict could shift to the advantage of either side if certain conditions are met.

Rebel Variables

The rebels benefit from a highly mobile, decentralized chain of command, but they lack the institutional coherence, structure and organization of the regime forces. Ideology, adaptability and a strong demographic base have been the cornerstones of rebel strength. There are large sympathetic populations the rebels can rely on to provide fresh fighters. This is a distinct advantage over the regime, which continues to rely disproportionately on minorities to staff the National Defense Force as well as most of the regular army officer corps. 

The value of the opposition's recruitment pool is tempered by the fractured nature of the rebel landscape, external power politics (such as the feud between Qatar and Saudi Arabia) and the presence of jihadists. A large portion of the rebels are committed jihadists or Islamists who maintain a high level of morale despite punishing strikes from the regime and high attrition rates. For example, in Homs, elements of the rebellion continue to hold out despite years of starvation and bombardment.

Main Roads in Syria and Turkey

Main Roads in Syria and Turkey

The rebels have also proved highly adaptable. At great cost, they have learned basic small unit, urban warfare and guerrilla tactics. They have also demonstrated an understanding of the importance of logistics — both maintaining their own as well as targeting the enemy's — and have been very creative in using improvised weapons to make up for their shortfall.

While the rebels suffer from a number of weaknesses, they are hampered most significantly by a lack of unity and by insufficient training and equipment. While some infighting among the rebels is expected, considering their natural ideological and religious differences, it has seriously hurt the rebellion. In comparison, the loyalists exploit their perceived minority status as a unifying force. The consequences of infighting can be seen most directly in Aleppo, where disunity has undermined more than a year of progress. 

Compared to their enemies, the rebels lack advanced weapons and training, military discipline and a cohesive command structure. They are forced to rely on dwindling stocks of captured weapons and handouts from the West or the Gulf Cooperation Council. Despite the presence of soldiers from the Syrian army, the general lack of rebel training has resulted in punishing casualties. 

A slow erosion of the rebel demographic base is underway. Dwindling popular support and a loss of morale among the fighters could critically undermine the rebellion, depriving it of the key strengths that have allowed it to oppose the regime for so long. Existing fault lines within the opposition movement — strained by the need to remain moderate among extremist elements — will be further aggravated by differences, even rivalries, among core external benefactors: the United States, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

An ability to marginalize the jihadist elements of the rebellion could lead to improved supplies and training. For example, Jordan has already committed to training as many as 200 Syrian fighters per week. If the West feels sufficiently confident to provide battle-winning systems to the rebellion, an influx of advanced anti-armor and anti-aircraft systems could tip the balance in favor of the rebels.

Regime Variables

The Syrian regime has three main advantages. First, there is cohesive support for al Assad, especially among the elite and the Druze, Alawite and Christian minorities. Second, the regime has superior training, equipment and command and control. And third, the regime enjoys more effective external support.

The regime greatly benefits from the support of a considerable portion of the Sunni Arab population. This demographic base, while not as large as the rebels', enables Damascus to maintain a solid hold on critical terrain, particularly in the Syrian core and the cities. While there have been signs of fractures within this population demographic, the perceived lack of an alternative to al Assad and the threat of extremist jihadists has ensured continued support for the regime. Furthermore, major defections from the central Syrian leadership have been exceedingly rare, indicating few notable schisms after three years of conflict. There have even been reports of defectors regretting their decision to join the rebellion.

Despite the weakening of the army, the regime has been able to depend on a trained force of men with superior equipment and weaponry, ranging from battlefield communications to artillery and airpower. This advantage has been crucial in countering rebel advances as well as staging concerted assaults that have been all but unstoppable by the underequipped rebels.

The regime has relied heavily on Iranian, Russian and Hezbollah support, which consists of equipment, weapons, funds and diplomatic cover. (And in the case of Hezbollah, fighters.) The absence of this support would not only directly translate to a decrease in combat effectiveness, it could also result in an economic collapse.

The regime is weak in two main areas: its manpower and the country's economy. Despite significant foreign support, al Assad's forces remain overstretched and largely unable to fight for all of Syria. While the regime can amass enough forces — usually by drawing troops from other areas — for one or two significant and simultaneous offensives, it often has to divert resources and manpower to counter rebel offensives taking advantage of subsequently weakened sectors. These constant diversions often prevent the regime from fully exploiting their advances.

Syria also presently has a war economy, one that has been adapted to support the Syrian war machine and its need for fuel, ammunition, spare parts, food and so on. Unlike the rebels, the regime maintains a conventional army, and a conventional army's weakness is its dependence on logistics a magnitude of order higher than the lightly equipped rebels.

Any shifts in levels of external support, the status of the economy or the continued support of al Assad are variables that can greatly alter the battlefield balance of power.

Battlefield Indicators

There are three key geographic indicators  that would signify a considerable change in the balance of power in Syria.


The northern city of Aleppo is a crucial battleground, one that hangs in the balance, unlike many parts of Syria, where one side holds a clear advantage. For the regime, it is located at the end of a long and vulnerable supply line and surrounded by rebel territory. However, it is also the center of rebel infighting that has seriously harmed the rebels' ability to conduct effective operations. The status of Aleppo is a critical indicator of the overall strength of either side.


Damascus is one of the three key geographic pillars of the regime (the others being the coastal regions and the Homs crossroads). The coast, despite a rebel offensive, will remain secure. For its part, Homs has been largely pacified. The rebels are also in poor shape in Damascus proper, but they retain a considerable presence around the city and its outskirts. The ability to further dismantle the opposition around Damascus would be illustrative of the regime's ability to further insulate the Syrian core. If they are successful in stamping out rebel presence in the area, al Assad's forces can devote further resources to outfield offensives. Until Damascus is fully secure, it is unlikely that the regime will seriously try to recapture the rest of the country.


Daraa is where the next big rebel offensive is predicted to occur. There has been notable speculation, including reports on supplies and training being extended to the rebels by the West and the Gulf Cooperation Council to secure victory. In any future rebel actions, the type of equipment used and the success of the operation will be an important indicator of the level of foreign support for the rebels. From this information it may be possible to gauge the likelihood of a direct rebel threat to Damascus from the south. Over the past week alone, at least two videos have surfaced showing rebels using BGM-71 TOW wire-guided anti-tank missiles, a weapon previously not seen in use by the opposition. This could be a sign of improving external support.

There is no easy solution to the conflict in Syria, and a political solution remains highly unlikely. The stalemate is likely to endure, potentially for years, until either the regime or the rebellion can deliver a decisive blow. Al Assad's regime has shown tenacity and endurance, while the rebels have struggled through crises that could have undermined the core of the movement. By being aware of key indicators, it is possible to identify the shifting currents of war. One thing we can identify now is that Syria's problems will not end with a clear rebel or regime victory; they will simply evolve into a new phase.

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