Jen Alic: Let’s just start out with the biggest question on everyone’s mind. Can the rebels defeat Assad?
Michael Bagley: Certainly, they can, but to fully answer this question we have to look backwards and forwards. It was a grave mistake for the US and its Arab allies to purposefully facilitate an influx of foreign fighters, namely Salafi jihadists, into Syria through the Turkish border to boost the ranks of the Syrian rebels. Now the rebels are in a tough position, and clearly everyone is having second thoughts about this disastrous strategy, not least the true rebels themselves. This temporary solution to the rebels’ inadequate manpower is now a not-so-temporary setback. This is the first problem that must be resolved.
Alic: The next obvious question, then, is how does one get rid of extremist forces it has welcomed into its ranks?
Bagley: The US has a tendency to temporarily befriend enemy jihadists, let them serve their purposes and then turn against them, creating even more vehement enemies in the process. This is what went horribly wrong in Libya last week. The rebels have already lost control of their Salafi jihadist elements, and along with that, the “hearts and minds” of the citizens who would otherwise have supported them wholeheartedly. Now that support is based on fear as much as it is on love—fear of the extremists. There has already been one rather high-profile assassination of a key jihadist commander, but this is not a realistic solution to the problem. The only way the rebels will defeat the jihadists is to defeat Assad on their own terms.
Alic: On Sunday, Syria’s Foreign Ministry, in a letter to the UN Security Council and Secretary-General Bank Ki-Moon, accused Turkey of allowing al-Qaeda fighters to cross into Syria. According to Syria, their numbers are in the thousands. How would you respond to this?
Bagley: Yes, the strategy is most unfortunate also because it gives Assad ammunition in the UN Security Council. Assad has always accused the rebels of being “terrorists”, even when the conflict first flared up and before “foreign fighters” were allowed to hijack the genuine rebel movement. Now Assad is being legitimized in a way that no one wants to see.
Assad is attempting, successfully, to foment worsening relations among the various sects in Syria to ensure there can be no united rebel force strong enough to affect his defeat. Not only are we dealing with “foreign fighters”, but criminal interests are stepping in to take advantage of the situation, and the population is being divided along sectarian lines, which will only be further exacerbated by the developments that began in Libya last week and quickly spread across the region.
Alic: What do you make of reports of the formation of a new rebel group call the Syrian National Army, apparently supported by Turkey, France and the US?
Bagley: This is more or less the revolution “Take II” and hopefully lighter on the jihadist element. It’s the Western powers trying to right a wrong, to undo the ill-conceived strategy that they started out with. What is disturbing is that this signals that the Free Syrian Army has failed and that there is a need to start over, which will result in a serious loss of momentum, and possibly another conflict front that buys into Assad’s overall plan to weaken the rebels. The “new” rebel group is not in itself a bad development and its commander, defected Major General Muhammad al-Haj Ali purportedly is against international intervention in the form of the establishment of a no-fly zone, and he is correct in this at this point because Assad has blurred the lines too much to make a no-fly zone effective.
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Alic: Why will this new group be more effective?
Bagley: It may not be. I think what is most important to understand, is that groups like the Free Syrian Army and this new Syrian National Army are by no means the backbone of the revolution. These groups largely are represented by exiled opposition leaders or defected military figures, who are not cohesive. Most of them are in Turkey and Jordan. On the ground, though, there are smaller rebel groups who have managed to establish their own organizational structures and who have been successful in replacing the regime, but not on a national level, only in small areas that are easier to control. It is this momentum upon which we need to build, and it is these smaller groups that the new Syrian National Army should focus on organizing into a national undertaking. If, from exile, the Syrian National Army can coordinate the efforts of these smaller groups instead of attempting to usurp them, they will be successful.
Alic: Assuming the rebels can re-take the revolution, so to speak, from the jihadist elements and overcome their own disunity, what shifts in strategy do they need to adopt in order to gain momentum?
Bagley: The rebels are attempting to change their strategy, demonstrated by the shooting down of a regime helicopter and the targeting of a military base recently. Overall, the rebels need to move away from ad-hoc guerilla warfare and adopt a more conventional military approach, focusing in military targets and hitting at Assad’s capacity to launch air raids that take out civilians in areas where the regime is tracking rebel concentrations. They need to go on the offensive against the regime’s capabilities, not engage in street battles with regime soldiers. For this they need heavy weapons, RPGs and MANPADS, for instance, and a great deal more high-tech equipment than they currently have.
They also need to hit at the sources of the regime’s weapons. They need a much bigger picture strategy in order to protect civilians, which is at the heart of their overall agenda, and they need to be viewed as “protectors” if they are to succeed. For starters, they need to stop shipments of weapons coming in from Iran via Iraq. To do this, they need intelligence.
Alic: And who is going to arm the rebels?
Bagley: That would be the million-dollar question. The US will not intervene directly ahead of presidential elections. Europe cannot intervene. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are more interested in Salafi jihadists getting the upper hand over the “original rebels”. The US is openly calling essentially for private donations to enable the rebels to buy weapons. In the end, they will be armed by the private sector, but so far the money is not there. It’s possible that donors are waiting to see what kind of strategy the rebels can come up with. But Iran may unwittingly force the hand of the “donors” to move more quickly.
Alic: On Sunday, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps made a public statement to the effect that Iran is assisting Syria militarily and may become directly involved if they feel the regime is truly threatened by external forces.
Bagley: Yes, this was interesting as it was the first time Iran has publicly admitted its assistance to Syria. However, there are also some internal Iranian politics to consider here; specifically that this statement came from the Revolutionary Guards and not from Tehran.
There seems to be a difference of opinion among Iranian power-brokers as to how to handle the situation in Syria. The Revolutionary Guards would like to play a more active role in the conflict, while the Iranian Supreme Leader is playing things more cautiously. What is significant here is that the Guards report directly to the Supreme Leader, and for the first time the Guards seem to be overstepping their bounds.
Alic: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us Michael. To find out more about Jellyfish Operations and how they can help your company with intelligence gathering, discovering new opportunities and mitigating operational risk – please visit their website: http://www.jellyfishoperations.com
Interview by Jen Alic of Oilprice.com