Syria’s President Assad is not engaged in a conventional war. He is not using armed forces against other armed forces. He is not even engaged in a conventional civil war: using armed forces against rebels and militants, and any potential rebels and militants such as young men from the ‘wrong areas’ or the ‘wrong ethnic/religious background’. No, Assad is engaged in total war. He is directing his military and intelligence apparatus, and that of his Russian and Iranian allies, towards all people living in rebel areas. And his goal is to beat these people into submission. Or destroy them altogether.
In a normal conventional war, or a normal civil war, one is fighting with all one’s resources against the opposing military actors, but one understands that the key to victory is getting the larger civilian population on board with your war aims. This is what the Western invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq failed to do. We assumed, wrongly, that the civilians would automatically be on our side. We were wrong. President Assad, on the other hand, entertains no illusions that the majority of Sunni civilians in Syria would ever back him continuing in power in the country. I believe many of these very people would rather live in the hell that is ISIS, than live in the even worse hell that is Assad’s Syria. And the rest do the best they can to leave Syria altogether – hence the huge refugee inflow into neighbouring countries and into Europe.
Assad’s commitment to killing
Once we understand that Assad is engaged in total war with large swathes of the civilian population in Syria, we understand why he used such tactics in the past as chemical attacks, and cluster and barrel bombs. These are all weapons banned under international treaties because of the destructive effects they have especially against civilians, and also because they have a huge psychological effect on any survivors. And that was exactly the point – Assad was not trying to win people over to his war goals. He was trying to beat them into submission. He needs these people to forfeit – to accept that the only way they’ll get peace is if he remains in power. To believe that he cannot be defeated, and that they are only heaping hell on themselves by continuing the rebellion.
Once we understand that Assad is engaged in total war with large swathes of the civilian population in Syria, we understand why he used such tactics in the past as chemical attacks, and cluster and barrel bombsAzeem Ibrahim
This approach has failed. The conflict has lasted over 5 years now. And the more brutal the attacks, the more heinous the violations of human rights and international treaties, the more resolute the Syrian opposition have become. When you show that much commitment to killing your people, those people don’t trust you to keep them safe if they lay down their weapons – who would have thought it?
And thus, Assad has little reason left to exercise any restraint. He does not want to do anything too brazen so as to not embarrass Russia and Iran, so we shouldn’t expect any escalation on the chemical weapon use. But there are other, better ways to obliterate civilian populations, and sap their will and capacity to fight you: for example, starvation.
This is exactly what is happening right now in the town of Madaya. The rebel town is completely surrounded by Assad forces and Hezbollah, and they are not allowing any aid even to the civilians, they’ve imposed a complete trade blockade so the town residents cannot acquire any food, and they are not allowing anyone to leave, either. The few that do manage to leave can only do so by paying bribes to the besiegers to be guided through the minefields that have been installed around the town. And the only outcome the government forces will accept is complete surrender – not just of the rebel fighters, but of everyone. The logic of starvation is undeniable too: while bombing may kill a few family members, it inevitably radicalizes the others who will seek revenge and drive even non-fighters to join ranks with the rebels. Starvation, on the other hand, kills everyone at once. Any while starving, people will lack the energy to fight.
This situation has been going on in Madaya for nearly six months. Assad must be judging the result as promising. And with the new upper hand the Assad forces have gained on the ground since Russia joined the war, expect these tactics to be deployed against many other rebel towns. And still we in the West have no strategic or even tactical response to the atrocities that the Assad regime is heaping on Syria’s people.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim