Thursday, December 20, 2012

Whither the Free Syrian Navy?

Rob & Dan’s conversation below provides a nice segue to a post I’ve been working… Russia has been watching the conflict in Syria closely and just announced the deployment of five ships to the Mediterranean in the event a non-combatant evacuation of Russian citizens is required.  In addition to preparing for this contingency, this deployment signals waning Russian support for the Assad regime. Elsewhere on the naval front in Syria, since I posted this, both the web and more official sources have been scant on additional information on the Syrian rebel fight at sea. More about that in a minute. But first, a bit about the nature of this civil war.

It must be understood that the ongoing fighting in the Levant isn’t simply a rebellion by people who have been oppressed by the minority Alawite regime; though, certainly desire for liberty is an integral component of the conflict. Rather, the context of this fight is a complex sectarian proxy war between Salafists Sunnis on one side and the Iranians on the other. In military doctrinal terms, for the Iranians, the war represents a foreign internal defense effort to prop up one of their sole remaining allies in the region, while for the Salafists, Syria is an unconventional warfare effort to overthrow an Iranian proxy state. There is no love lost ideologically between the Shia Persians and Assad's Alawites, who basically are considered apostates by other Shia. But Iran is willing to overlook those religious differences to maintain this important strategic partnership, and has expended considerable military, financial, and political resources to support Assad.  Also interesting is that the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK), has received recognition from both Assad and Iran.  PKK has joined the fray against rebelling Sunni co-religionists; clearly seeking to take advantage of the chaos to better position itself against their arch-enemy Turkey. 

 On the other side, a Sunni majority population is supported by the likes of Qatar and other Gulf states who see the fight as an opportunity to give a more powerful Iran a black eye.  The leaders of the Syrian National Council (SNC) – who are now endorsed by western powers – are viewed as little more than “suits” by the Syrian population and more importantly, the jihadist fighters that make up the heart of the insurgency.  The strongest faction of these rebels is known as the al-Nusra Front (ANF). While ANF might only represent 10-20% of the total  resistance, they are the most effective, most violent fighters, and equipped with the most firepower. More importantly, ANF's ideology, rhetoric, and objectives make them essentially al Qaeda by another nameAlong with the hard core ANF, Syria has become the foreign jihadi sponge du jourand is becoming a magnet for militants from Europe, Africa, and Asia.  In this sectarian stew, the SNC would likely be incapable of governing a post-Assad regime with a rival like ANF vying for political and military power.  Finally, as with any sectarian war, thousands of innocent civilians and minority groups are caught in the middle and bearing the brunt of the violence.
 I won't speculate as to Assad's staying power here (listen to Dan's points in the video).  Many arguments – some better than others – have been put forth on whether or not the US or other Western countries should intervene militarily in this fight. Deliberations for any sort of Western intervention should seriously consider these dynamics and recall that the last time the US was directly involved in a raging sectarian conflict of this scope was Iraq circa 2004-2007.  That said, if for whatever reason the US finds itself embroiled in this mess, ANF leadership must be part of the target deck.  While bombs were being dropped liberally in Libya last spring, we failed to neutralize known al Qaeda elements, and four Americans paid for that mistake with their lives earlier this year.
Back to the Navy side: In August, a video of another Syrian Navy Colonel defecting and denouncing Assad appeared on Youtube. The video is of Muhammad Mikhbaht, of the Navy Staff Recon Division.  He opens with obligatory Quran verses and well wishes for all the wounded and the martyred civilians. After announcing his defection, he denounces the Syrian Army for attacking the unarmed civilians. He calls for all the officers in every Syrian military division to denounce the Syrian regime and join the civilian revolution. He ends the video with something along the lines of "long live free Syria and victory is definitely coming soon Allah willing." By my unofficial count, this is the third naval officer to publically defect since the revolution began. Undoubtedly, there are many others. Whether or not these defectors are currently active in the resistence in more than than a social media figurehead role is unknown.
Ethnic Demographics are against the formation of a FSN

As to the “Free Syrian Navy,” after months of silence, a new post appeared on their completely unofficial blog last week.  Notice that the new appeal to fishermen and boat owners to take up arms and form a coastal assault force is now directed to Lebanon.  As I mentioned in the previous post, there are a number of missions where such a maritime capability would be valuable. So why haven't earlier efforts to form a Free Syrian Navy borne fruit?  

It appears that coastal demographics are tilted against the formation of a viable naval resistance.  The most likely reason the rebels haven’t had success is that the Alawite strongholds on the coast - those populations most likely to have some sort of fishing/sea-going experience - are aligned with the regime.  Were Assad to fall, the populations here would be fighting for their lives, not just to remain in political power.  They have no incentive to fight against him now.  Hence the FSN request to Sunnis in Lebanon to join the naval fight.  The efforts to organize an FSN are probably futile, especially given a full naval order of battle remains intact on the regime side. 
The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency. 

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