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Syria Special: Welcome to Phase Two Insurgency

Claimed footage of a regime tank destroyed by insurgents in Idlib Province last week

See Also Syria Snap Analysis: Deir Ez Zor & Human Rights Watch
Bahrain, Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The Conditions for Dialogue
Turkey Live Coverage (19 March): New Year Celebrations, Clashes, and the Syria Crisis

UPDATE: There are new developments in Syria that intersect this article on two levels. I have posted a separate article to note them: Syria Snap Analysis: Deir Ez Zor & Human Rights Watch.

There has been yet another dramatic shift in the crisis in Syria over the last four days. Friday's protests were large and widespread. Deir Ez Zor and Al Raqqa have seen major conflict, the former for the first time in months and the latter for the first time ever. There are reports of the Free Syrian Army launching attacks all over the country, including in Qamishli, a largely Kurdish town that has hosted large protests over the last few weeks.

After several weeks of retreat, the Free Syrian Army has raised its head in nearly every region in the country, most significantly in and around the capital Damascus.

In January, the world was shocked when the insurgents seemed to appear out of nowhere and won major victories, capturing nearly the entire city of Homs, and some of its suburbs, such as Al Rastan to the north; key locations in and around Hama and Daraa; most of Idlib Province, including the town of Kafer Takharim and Idlib city; Zabadani, Madaya, and Rankous in the Damascus countryside; and nearly all of the eastern suburbs of Damascus.After several weeks, however, a bloody regime offensive recaptured most of this territory, and bombarded into dust the few areas still remain in the hands of the opposition.

The defeats of February and early March make these recent campaigns even more significant. Despite frustrated efforts for foreign intervention, the peaceful protests are not dissipating, and the FSA is capable of catching the regime off guard.

We are seeing more ambushes, more IED attacks, and more coordinated efforts from the insurgency's fighters. For instance, the decision to retreat from Idlib, only to destroy several Baath Party building and launch the most recent wave of attacks, shows that the armed wing of the opposition has begun what Syria expert Joshua Landis is calling "the outlines of a classic 'phase two' insurgency predicated on guerrilla warfare".

This phase is reached when the insurgent movement initiates organized continuous guerrilla warfare in an attempt to push government forces into a defensive role. “Phase three” insurgency is a war of movement. In this phase the insurgent can directly engage government forces and hold territory. The Syrian opposition prematurely tried to hold territory and take on the Syrian Army. This was a bad and costly mistake. In the first year of the Syrian uprising the opposition naively believed that the entire Syrian population would embrace it and abandon the regime or that Bashar al-Assad would hand over power. Based on the example of the North African uprisings, Syrian opposition members incorrectly believed a “Tahrir Square moment” would arrive within months of the uprising’s start, eliminating the need for a coherent military strategy, a defined leadership, or how to parry government counter-insurgency operations. The passions of Syrians who have tasted little but contempt from their own government led them to rise up in an act of incredible courage. Now, however, the reality of just how difficult attaining victory will be is setting in.

The Assad regime remains vigorous and will last longer than many thought. The reason that mass defections have not destroyed the regime are twofold: sectarian anxieties prevent Alawite defections, and the regime turns out to be more sectarian than many thought; and class anxieties are more important as well.

As I predicted in mid-February, the conflict is now resembling guerrilla warfare, not entirely dissimilar to what worked for the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Landis adds that this next phase will close the gap between Syria and Iraq. He predicts that to wage an asymmetrical war, the opposition will become increasingly Islamic in its identity, relying on terrorism and sectarianism to fuel the campaign against Assad.

We may already be seeing some of this. While early car bombings in Damascus appeared to me to be the work of the regime and its supporters, more recent attacks carry the marks of anti-Assad forces. The explosions may not yet be a part of the Free Syrian Army arsenal, but somebody appears to be using terrorism as a weapon against the regime.

With foreign intervention less likely now than it was at the end of 2011, and even if most of the opposition does not turn to desperate measures, it makes sense that some insurgents --- and outside forces --- would take this opportunity to prove their relevance in resolving the conflict.

That, however, does not bear out Landis's long-held assessment of widespread "sectarianism". While there is evidence of Alawites targeting Sunnis in places like Homs and Idlib, the allegations of abuses on behalf of the opposition have been less specific and harder to confirm. Beyond this, support for the opposition seems to be more broadly based than ever. The Kurdish city of Qamishli, the Sunni and Christian areas near Tartous, and the Druze areas near Daraa have seen growth in opposition.

And there may be another reason why we are not yet seeing widespread sectarianism: nobody wants to be like Iraq, both before and the 2003 war.

I will focus more on this, but for now it is safe to say that the new attacks by the Free Syrian Army are the opening moves of "phase two insurgency". The opposition may be a long way from outright victory, but no one in the Assad regime should sleep well knowing that, seemingly out of nowhere, the opposition can strike.

In the long-run, a wiser FSA will weaken the regime. In the short run, though, get ready for a far more violent, more disruptive, and less predictable conflict.

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