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Syria in the fog of war

By Julie Bishop - posted Thursday, 28 February 2013


When seeking to assess the progress of any conflict it is wise to be mindful of the old adage that "truth is the first casualty of war".

This is particularly important in relation to the bloody conflict in Syria which involves disparate groups, not part of a formal armed force, yet united in their opposition to a tyrant.

The additional complexity of rival groups operating under the fog of war makes it more difficult to judge the motivations behind the information or misinformation that is selectively released by all participants.

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Over the past 12 months there have been numerous predictions of the imminent collapse of the regime of President Bashir al-Assad.

These predictions are often accompanied by reports of rapid gains by the rebel forces and a failure of the Syrian government armed forces to withstand these assaults.

The motivation for reports of the rebels' military victories is clearly part of an age-old tactic of undermining morale within the regime, and hopefully encouraging defections and desertions to deplete the regime's strength.

To counter these reports, the Assad regime portrays itself as a legitimate government that remains in control of a substantial military force and which will eventually regain control of the entire country.

These actions are likewise entirely predictable.

However, some recent developments reveal the deep complexity of the strategic environment in which this conflict it taking place.

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Worryingly, there are reports of Syrian government forces withdrawing from the Golan region that borders Israel.

This will have the effect of removing any barrier between the Israel forces occupying the Golan Heights and the extremist elements within the rebel groups in Syria that include al-Qaeda among others.

There are also reports of factions within the rebel forces threatening to launch attacks against the Lebanon-based Hezbollah forces that are aligned to Iran and the Assad regime.

Hezbollah units are reportedly operating inside Syria in support of Assad and defending Alawite villages in areas near the Syria/Lebanon border.

Hezbollah and the Syrian rebel forces have accused each other of firing artillery over the border.

The rebel forces may be reluctant to follow through on their threats to attack Hezbollah positions inside Lebanon due to the significant military capabilities of the organisation.

Hezbollah is regarded as one of the most dangerous guerrilla organisations in the world with estimates that it can mobilise up to 65,000 troops and that it possesses a large stockpile of rockets and other weapons.

The organisation would retaliate against any push into Lebanon by the Syrian rebel forces as that would pose a threat to its authority in the country, particularly if Sunni and Salafist Lebananese challenged the Shiite Hezbollah that currently dominate the government.

A further development came this week when Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said, for the first time, that the Assad regime was willing to open negotiations with rebel leaders to end the bloodshed.

The statement came during a visit to Russia, a key backer of the regime, and meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who has consistently warned that the Syrian conflict has the potential to morph into a fully-fledged regional sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite.

The offer to negotiate comes after reports that regime forces have changed tactics and adopted largely defensive positions that will prove difficult to overcome.

While many pundits continue to predict the fall of the Assad regime there is a view that with the strong backing of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, it has the military capacity to survive for two years or longer.

That would lead to enormous ongoing hardship and loss of life among the Syrian civilian population and the military forces.

One of the dangers is that if the Syrian regime is able to maintain a stalemate for any significant length of time, the rebel forces may turn their attention to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and/or Israel.

It is difficult to envisage a negotiated settlement that would satisfy the aspiration of Syria's Sunni majority and the various minorities including the Alawite community from which the regime arose.

Despite the enormous difficulties in achieving such a settlement, every effort must be made to bring peace to Syria before the war spreads beyond its borders, with devastating consequences.

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About the Author

Julie Bishop is the Federal Member for Curtin, Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs.

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