BEIRUT: In the mid-1990s, Khalil Harb, a top Hezbollah commander in south Lebanon, authored a set of 13 basic principles for guerrilla warfare which was adopted by Hezbollah in its resistance campaign against the then-Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. The commanders of the Free Syrian Army would be well advised to pick up a copy of Harb’s document as the “13 principles” are highly applicable to the 17-month conflict in Syria.
The confrontation in Syria is being described as a civil war but perhaps a more accurate depiction is that it is evolving along the lines of a classic insurgency with highly motivated but lightly armed guerrillas trying to grind down the well-equipped and trained elite units of a conventional army.
Insurgencies are Darwinian contests where failure by either side to evolve and adapt to changing battlefield circumstances almost guarantees eventual defeat. Furthermore, the grueling nature of insurgencies means they can last a long time before one side or the other can proclaim victory. It took 22 years before Lebanese resistance groups were able to drive Israeli troops from Lebanese soil. In Sri Lanka, it took government forces 26 years before finally defeating the Tamil Tiger insurgency.
Two weeks ago, it appeared for a moment as though the struggle between the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the armed opposition had finally reached a climax when elements of the FSA staged an unprecedented assault on Damascus, sweeping through several districts, burning the main police station and killing four top regime security chiefs in a brazen bomb assassination.
But key units of the Syrian army fought back, relying on its advantage of overwhelming firepower, including artillery and helicopter gunships, to drive back the rebel forces.
A similar scenario appears to be under way in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city where a reported 1,000 FSA fighters have redeployed from the countryside to the city with the intention of confronting the army which has been massing on the outskirts of the city for the past few days. In deploying its forces into Aleppo, the FSA appears to have broken at least six of Harb’s 13 principles. They include “Avoid the strong, attack the weak – attack and withdraw,” “Keep moving; avoid formation of a front line” and most pertinently “Don’t get into a set-piece battle. Slip away like smoke, before the enemy can drive home his advantage.”
Urban terrain is generally easier for lightly armed combatants to defend against attacking troops. But it appears the Syrian army will avoid sending soldiers into the city in a concerted manner for the time being and instead will choose to degrade the FSA by pounding rebel-held areas with artillery and helicopter gunships.
The tactic of striking targets with stand-off munitions, like artillery and airpower, spares troops having to engage in exhausting and dangerous close-quarter combat, giving them a chance to rest in between campaigns.
It is hard to imagine that the Syrian army will yield Aleppo to the opposition, but instead will continue its siege and bombing offensive until the FSA is forced to withdraw or be killed.
General Robert Mood, the former head of the U.N. monitoring mission in Syria, said Friday that although Assad’s regime would inevitably collapse at some point, it could still hold out for a few more months.
“In the short term it may well be possible for him to [hold on] because the military capabilities of the Syrian army are much, much stronger that those of the opposition,” he said.
The Syrian regime is relying heavily on its key units, the Fourth Armored Division and the Republican Guard, both of which are commanded by Maher Assad, the Syrian president’s younger brother. Both units are composed mainly of Alawites, the minority sect that forms the backbone of the regime, which helps create loyalty to the Assad leadership and unity within the ranks against an overwhelmingly Sunni armed opposition.
Nonetheless, trying to stamp out an armed rebellion that has popular and widespread support using brute force alone rarely succeeds.
The FSA enjoys an advantage in maneuverability and popular support, and some units are employing guerrilla-style tactics. The regular Syrian forces rely on the road network to rush from one trouble spot to another, offering the rebels opportunities to stage ambushes, blow up bridges or mine routes with Improvised Explosive Devices.
Time Magazine reported last week that members of the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra in the Idlib Province said they were manufacturing Explosively Formed Projectiles, powerful shaped-charge IEDS that discharge a molten copper slug which can cut through the armor of tanks. IEDs, including EFPs, helped win the war for Hezbollah against Israel in south Lebanon in the 1990s and they also accounted for more coalition lives than any other weapon in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
The rising number of roadside ambushes has led to the more isolated Syrian military units being resupplied by helicopter.
However, the major challenge facing the FSA is the lack of specialized armaments to blunt the Syrian army’s advantage in military hardware.
“We want weapons that would stop tanks and jet fighters. That is what we want,” Syrian National Council chief Abdel-Basset Seyda said Saturday following talks in the United Arab Emirates. He urged Arab “brothers and friends to support the Free [Syrian] Army,” adding that the support should be “qualitative because the rebels are fighting with old weapons.”
FSA fighters have acquired a few advanced Russian anti-tank missiles, such as the AT-14 Kornet, usually stolen from military depots, but so far in insufficient numbers to make an impact against the Syrian army’s tanks and armored vehicles.
Since early June, the Syrian military has been making greater use of the fearsome Mi 24 “Hind” helicopter gunships to strafe rebel-held areas, including Aleppo. It would not be surprising, therefore, if shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles begin to make an appearance in Syria soon, repeating the experience of the Afghan “mujaheideen” in the 1980s who employed U.S.-made Stinger missiles against Soviet Mi 24 helicopters to great effect.
Although the regime has touted Aleppo as the “mother of all battles” and the FSA appears to be rallying for a climatic showdown in the city, the rebel fighters perhaps should adopt a more patient and prudent strategy and take to heart Harb’s ninth principle on his list of 13: “The road to great victory passes through thousands of small victories.”