Syrian Stalemate

Why Bashar al-Assad will never defeat the rebels.

Bashar al-Assad has failed to quell a stubborn rebellion despite his regime's massive edge in military manpower and weaponry -- but also because of these material advantages. His forces, replete with heavy armor, attack aircraft, and big guns, have tried to use something akin to our Powell Doctrine of "overwhelming force." Yet the insurgents' nimble, loose-jointed networks of small cells have slipped most of the heavy punches thrown at them, and they have launched increasingly stinging counter-blows of their own.

How is it possible for such a ragtag movement to persist? Without the kind of NATO-provided close air support the Libyan rebels enjoyed? The answer lies in the fact that the Syrian military, like armed forces of most nations, is organized into a few large, bulky units, while insurgent cells are smaller and far more fluid. Thus the Syrian Army, most of whose striking power is concentrated in eight tank divisions, has a terrible time trying to deal with the "pop up" attacks by roughly 1,000 eight- to ten-man rebel fire teams. Air strikes against small bands of fighters are problematic, especially in urban terrain -- resulting far more in the killing of innocents than of insurgents.

That the rebels are receiving increasing numbers of anti-tank weapons -- and perhaps now a few shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles -- makes them increasingly deadly. But their real advantage lies in being able to launch offensives simultaneously in half a dozen Syrian cities. We hear mostly of the fighting in and around Damascus and Aleppo, but the rebellion is flaring all around the country -- and the regime hasn't yet figured out how to scale down its forces into smaller units and deploy them widely enough to tamp down these hotspots.

In short, the insurgent network is swarming regime forces, like killer bees, or ants overwhelming a crippled beetle. Analogies from nature aside, the simple math of the Syrian civil war is that the rebels attack many points at the same time, while the Syrian military is only able to focus its counterattacks on a few points at any given moment. For the regime, this is a losing proposition in the long run. Bashar al-Assad still has a large, well-armed military, and the Iranians and Russians will likely keep restocking his arsenals for a while. But unless he can create a counter-swarm of his own, his days are numbered.

However certain Bashar's ultimate downfall may be, it is not imminent. The insurgents' principal strength, their network of small cells, is also their main weakness, as the diverse bands of fighters lack a unifying narrative to cement their common purpose. The simple story of an oppressed people struggling to overthrow a tyrant is complicated by the desire of some insurgents to settle old scores with the long-ruling Alawite minority, and the visceral hatred others have for Syria's sizeable Christian community. The presence of al Qaeda fighters is a wild card that further complicates the prospects for direct external military intervention, and makes even choices about better arming the rebels highly problematic. Mitt Romney has spoken of giving aid to the "good insurgents," but they are very hard to distinguish clearly.

Another difficulty for the insurgency is that Bashar has a network of militiamen, the shabiha, able to make great mischief. But his use of them quickly backfired. Bashar began the conflict by launching the shabiha against nonviolent demonstrators; as their name suggests (it translates roughly as "thugs"), they have behaved very badly, beating, raping, and murdering protestors -- actions that only fanned the flames of insurgency. While the shabiha are still out there -- and still pose serious problems for the rebels -- the social damage they inflict with their depredations is too great. In short, they have the kind of organizational structure best suited to fighting the insurgents, but their actions, on balance, do far more harm than good to the regime.

Another way Bashar has tried to raise his game is by taking advice from Hezbollah activists and Iranian cadres that seem to have made their way into Syria. Hezbollah fighters employed a network-and-swarm concept against the Israeli Defense Forces during the Lebanon War in the summer of 2006. They organized in countless small teams that held their own in the field against one of the world's best militaries. But Bashar isn't facing the IDF, which looks a lot like his own armed forces. Instead he is going up against something that looks a lot more like the Hezbollah order of battle. He needs a model to counter irregulars, not a concept for fighting conventional forces. At the margin, the Iranian advisors are providing him useful insights -- but not enough to achieve a decisive advantage over the insurgents.

Bashar's last, best hope may lie now with the Russians. Not in receiving more arms from them, but in learning from their wars with the Chechens. In 1996, a large conventional Russian army was driven from Chechnya by a loose-knit swarm of tribal fighters. Yet a few years later, the Russians came back and defeated them. How? They succeeded by creating and unleashing a network of small units of their own, and by co-opting some of the clans. That is, they learned how to use swarm tactics against irregulars -- a real doctrinal breakthrough in military affairs. It is rumored that some of the Russian counterinsurgency specialists who helped turn around Chechnya are now providing advice along these lines to regime forces.

But could the Syrian Army really undertake such a radical shift in the middle of combat operations? It is certainly possible, but every indicator suggests that the regime's military leaders are habituated to highly centralized control and heavily scripted operational plans. And even if the army does make the effort to change its concept of operations, it will be necessary to halt ongoing offensives while the force is reconfigured. This would cede much of Syria to the rebels, a gambit fraught with peril and profound material and psychological consequences.

The bottom line is that the regime's military performance is highly unlikely to improve to the point at which it can defeat the insurgents -- unless Bashar is willing to "roll the iron dice" (as German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg put matters on the eve of World War I) and take the risk of scaling down his forces into small units and have them wage a kind of guerrilla warfare against the guerrillas. For their part, the rebels are just as unlikely to succeed in the near- or mid-term without either vastly improved armaments or outside intervention in the form of air support. Giving them more lethal weapons risks having them sent downstream to al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations. And more overt military intervention risks conflict escalation, certainly with Iran, and possibly with Russia, which has a naval base in Syria and has expressed deep concern about the security of the Christian community there.

A stalemate. Which, in a caring world, would energize an innovative diplomatic approach, one that does not insist on Bashar's immediate removal, but does demand the safety, security, and gradually increasing liberty of the Syrian people.

Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images

National Security

What the Vikings Can Teach Us About Terrorism

It's not about religion.

What if all the reasons commonly given for the onset of the current age of terror are wrong? If violence against the innocent is not the product of religious fanaticism, reaction to corrupt governance, or a manifestation of the sheer hopelessness and rage that come with perpetual poverty, then what are the real causes? If the received wisdom about terrorism can be challenged, then there is an obligation to look more deeply into its origins.

In the matter of faith-based zealotry, psychiatrist and former CIA case officer Marc Sageman has profiled hundreds of jihadis affiliated with the al Qaeda movement, finding that religion is a lesser included factor in their recruitment. Indeed, a significant percentage of these militants undertook graduate studies -- such study itself a seeming contradiction of fundamentalism -- many outside the Muslim world. For example, 9/11 attack team leader Mohammed Atta studied architecture in Germany. Al Qaeda's deepest strategic thinker, Abu Mus'ab al-Suri is an engineer. Osama bin Laden had a business education and came from a very wealthy family of industrialists -- again giving the lie to the notion of terrorists as unthinking religious fanatics. As Sageman notes in his Understanding Terror Networks, these sorts of secular backgrounds are commonly found. We have misjudged the jihad.

As to terror arising in reaction to government oppression, the Arab Spring provides much evidence -- as do the many "color revolutions" that have come before -- that social uprisings can take the form of, and succeed with, peaceful demonstrations. And on those occasions when armed revolts have erupted, as in Libya and Syria, they have aimed largely at the tyrants and their militaries, not the innocent. If anything, insurrections in the Muslim world seem less prone to the kind of anti-government terrorism that has surfaced from time to time in Europe with such groups as the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, and in the United States in the form of far-right extremists like Timothy McVeigh.

With regard to the belief that poverty and hopelessness spark terrorism, one can only say that many, many countries see endless years of travail of this sort without ever a terrorist group rising up. Why is it that the vast majority of those who suffer in such settings fail to take up arms and commit terrorist acts? The philosopher John Stuart Mill once articulated what he called a "method of difference" by which he held that factors -- such as poverty and hopelessness -- common to many areas, but leading to a particular outcome (in this case, terrorism) in only a few, should not be seen as the true causes of the phenomenon. Thus, persistent economic suffering should not be seen as a prime catalyst for terrorism.

But if the foregoing, widely accepted troika of causes of our current age of terror are all false, then what is this violent plague's true origin? In discussions over the past decade, my colleague Robert O'Connell and I have observed that the desire to prey upon the innocent is rooted deeply in human nature. From the earliest times, bush and mountain tribes, horse archers, and sea peoples all perpetrated acts of symbolic violence against hapless victims in order to shock their families, and their protectors, into states of temporary inaction during plunder raids. This violence also served to intimidate the victims into paying tribute, in the hope of being left in peace later on. In one form or another over the centuries, from piracy on the high seas to steppe raiders, and on to the "business model" of numerous modern terrorist factions, the pattern persists: Symbolic violence or the threat of it, aimed at the innocent, has been used to pursue gains -- material and otherwise.

To be sure, there have been terrorist organizations driven primarily by religious zeal, the Cult of the Assassins in the 13th century being the best example of the use of murder to further belief-based interests. But in the long history of violence against the innocent, the Assassins are far more the exception than the rule. No, it seems instead that terror has flourished when external conditions have allowed, not when ideas have inspired or suffering has impelled. Ideas without opportunity have always withered.

Just what are the conditions that allow ages of terror to emerge or re-emerge? O'Connell and I think there are three: favorable technologies, mobility, and lack of international order.

Perhaps the greatest early technological enabler of terror was the swift, shallow-draft ship. The Vikings perfected this kind of vessel, which gave them great mobility -- and the lack of international order of any sort during the Dark Ages gave them plenty of opportunities. That they used violence to cow their victims into submission all around the European littorals, and even deep into Russia, is best reflected in the common prayer of the time: "Lord spare us the fury of the Norsemen." Pirates ever since have done their best to emulate the Viking model, and have waxed or waned in tandem with technological advances or international developments that affected their relative mobility and the resolve of their opponents.

Two centuries ago, for example, as the Napoleonic Wars were nearing their end and the age of steam was beginning, pirates from Barbary to the Far East suffered from lack of access to the emerging propulsion technology and, once the Royal Navy and its allies were free to police the "ocean commons," had to face formidable opposition from the new world order of its day. Piracy went into eclipse, and has since only flared up occasionally -- the resurgence of Somalian sea predators (whose takings have declined by 90 percent this past year) being in part a function of the disorder in their homeland.

The astounding increase in acts of terrorism since the turn of the millennium -- from ten in 2000 to over 10,000 in 2006, according to State Department and National Counterterrorism Center figures -- can be best understood in terms O'Connell and I suggest. At the technological level, the disruptive and destructive power of small groups has grown considerably -- see how much damage the 19 attackers did on 9/11 by riding the rails of a key transportation technology of our time to turn civilian airliners into missiles. Further, cyberspace has proved a virtual haven for terrorists, who can recruit, raise funds, and plan operations on a global scale with a few secure clicks.

And the kind of international order that President George H.W. Bush spoke of so hopefully in 1991 -- in the wake of Desert Storm -- has never emerged. Instead, it is a world that Zbigniew Brzezinski once presciently described as "out of control." The membership of the United Nations has nearly quadrupled since its inception at the end of World War II, but the number or nations that are failing to sustain basic state functions is high, and even growing. Indeed, this magazine's 2012 "Failed States Index" notes only a few areas of stability -- North America, Western Europe, and Australia -- while all other regions teeter on the brink of disaster. This means that significant swaths of the world lie beyond notions of order, making them fertile ground for the seeds of terror.

If O'Connell and I are right, the implications for policy are to: 1) disengage from religious disputations about exactly who has "hijacked Islam"; 2) prioritize the establishment of societal order first in troubled areas, rather than government-in-a-box democracy; and 3) focus on improving the ability to detect and track terrorists in cyberspace. These three straightforward steps are unlikely to be taken, though, absent a willingness to consider the possibility that the true lineage of terror is radically different from the prevailing beliefs that shape the global discourse today.

Given the return of al Qaeda to Iraq, its involvement in Syria and Yemen, and its new franchises in Africa and other parts of the world -- along with increasing signs that other terrorist movements are now getting underway -- perhaps it's time for a new paradigm.