Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

What war in Syria looks like: journalist killings, deadlier IEDs

Whatever restraint that was being exercised by the parties to Syria's civil war appears to have been cast aside.

Fadi Zaidan/AP
In this picture taken on Tuesday, June 26, a Syrian rebel, left, fires by his AK-47 machine gun against a helicopter during a clashes with the Syrian forces troops, at Saraqeb town, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria.

Events in Syria are rapidly unraveling. Earlier today President Bashar al-Assad abandoned his claims that the regime was merely fighting terrorists sent by foreign powers to destabilize Syria and said the country is in a "real state of war." Today some of the war's heaviest fighting near Damascus took place and a pro-Assad television station about 12 miles south of the capital was overrun by rebels, who killed employees there.

While Mr. Assad's military has fought ferociously to put down the rebellion, using the heaviest mortars in the world and launching artillery barrages on majority Sunni towns like Hama and Homs, there has been some restraint. So far there has been no repeat of the Hama massacre of 1982, when Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, leveled much of that city to put down an Islamist uprising, killing more than 10,000 Syrians. 

The younger Assad's acknowledgment of the war around him today could signal a turn to more ruthless tactics. If that happens, it will be against an armed opposition that has steadily grown more lethal in recent months, with arms paid for by the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar flowing to the rebels, an increasing tempo of attacks on government security forces, and an increasing adoption of the tactics that Sunni insurgents employed with devastating effect against US forces and their allies in the war in Iraq. At the moment, both sides see the total destruction of the other as the way to end the war.

An international meeting is scheduled in Geneva for this weekend at which world powers will discuss Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she has "great hope" for a positive outcome. But with Syrian ally Iran excluded from the talks and Syrian enemy Saudi Arabia, which is backing the rebels, not expected to attend, she will probably be disappointed.

Syria was a major entry point for foreign jihadis into Iraq during the height of the war there, and it was presumed that Assad's regime turned a blind eye to the Syrian, Egyptian, and Libyan fighters passing through his territory. After all, the US had been grumbling about regime change in his country, so anything that kept US troops tied down next door was to his advantage.

But veterans of the Iraq conflict have now joined the fight against Assad, who is a member of the Alawite sect – an offshoot of Shiite Islam whose followers are viewed as apostates by Sunni fundamentalists. The Alawites are a minority in Syria, but they have dominated senior government positions and the military officer corps for decades.

Among the techniques deployed by insurgents are improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against government convoys. Roadside IEDs generated most of the US casualties in Iraq, and though solid data is hard to come by, they're probably responsible for most of the more than 400 Syrian military deaths reported by the government so far this month. IEDs are popular among insurgents because they're cheap to make and are less risky to deploy than direct assaults on heavily armed regular troops.

There are also indications that the bombs are increasingly sophisticated. The Brown Moses blog, which aggregates news about Syria's war, points out growing reports of the use of explosively formed penatrator IEDs in Syria, which penetrate further than regular IEDs. David Enders reported earlier this month that some rebel groups have acknowledged to him the growing presence of EFPs in Syria.

The weapon amounts to a curved copper cap fixed over the explosives in the bomb. The explosives hit the copper cap, forcing it into a fast-moving slug of metal than can penetrate armor.

“They are hard to get and expensive,” a young IED maker complained to Enders, who wrote the "former university student [spends] his days making bombs with fertilizer, mostly by packing it into empty cooking-gas containers... for targeting tanks, he packs truck axles cut in half full of explosives." 

In Iraq, senior US officers complained that Iran was providing the insurgents with EFPs. But workshops for the construction of the bombs were also found inside the country, and it's axiomatic that the longer a war drags on, the more technically proficient local insurgents become in the manufacturing of bombs. In the case of Syria, Iran is an ally of the Assad regime. There are also indications of workshops to build the explosives inside Syria, as this video purports to show.

The assault on the pro-Assad TV station this morning is also a reminder that it's not just civilians on the rebel side that are being killed in the expanding war. At least three people were killed in the assault on the Ikhbariya TV station and there were claims that the rebels took hostages, although this has not been confirmed. Supporters of the uprising said the attack was appropriate, since Ikhbariya is a government propaganda outlet.

Propaganda is indeed a major part of the regime's survival effort. But when foreign journalists Remi Ochlik and Marie Colvin were killed in a government artillery barrage on a rebel-held section of Homs earlier this year, there were howls of outrage from the opposition. The two were part of a group traveling with the rebels, staying in a flat that amounted to an information hub for the local uprising. The information war cuts both ways, and is due to continue.

From a tactical perspective, the ability of rebels to strike at a major regime symbol so close to Damascus could signal real trouble for Assad – if they manage to follow up with further assaults. While there have been few signs of the regime crumbling from within, there have been reports of more defections in recent days. A loss of control of routes into Damascus would increase the pressure on Assad and plant seeds of doubt among more of his supporters – something he will fight desperately to avoid.

I covered the Iraq war for five years, at the height of the sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites. Syria, with its ruling Alawite minority and majority Sunni population, already seems pointed down that ugly road. The below video purports to be of successful rebel IED attacks on government forces, practically indistinguishable from the sort of propaganda that Sunni insurgents issued about their attacks in Iraq.

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