The Syrian Gambit
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Such loyalty must be forged. One way of achieving this is by creating mutual dependence among the fighters. The easiest and cheapest way to accomplish that relies on hidden—but real—threats. Invariably, these soldiers watch each other perform crimes; they possess so much embarrassing knowledge about each other that—if I may use a sarcastic form of this phrase—they become “blood brothers.” This explains the oddly polite relationship between Barak and Netanyahu despite the bitter political rivalry between them. The Syrian Republican Guard is the parallel of the IDF elite units with a twist, they also perform bodyguard tasks. They are the only military unit allowed into Damascus, and sum up a full division, roughly 10,000 soldiers. Nowadays, the unit is led by Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher. The guard’s loyalty is enhanced also by ethnic considerations.
The point is simple. Since the conflict is also ethnic, the losers can’t leave anybody behind. If Assad’s regime surrenders, the Republican Guard cannot be dismantled quietly. It cannot blend into the population. Alawite men of certain age and looks would automatically be tagged as “Former Republican Guard” and will be dealt with violently by the new regime. Any evacuation plan by Assad must take into account the Republican Guard; he can’t split it, he can’t dismantle it. Assad knows that the only way to ensure the loyalty of those who will provide the military security he needs for the evacuation will demand the safety of all his blood brothers.
The Syrian Gambit
Understanding this, what is needed for a safe evacuation is clear. The aerial route is unlikely to be chosen. To transport well over 10,000 people (the Republican Guard and the core of the Assad Administration) quietly and safely is almost impossible. It would be such a temptation for Israel to strike such a convoy, that it is better not to put this to a test. The safest approach would be for Assad to move overland to the northeastern part of his territory, which is controlled by Kurds. From there, he may create an enclave from where to conduct the resistance, move to the Shi’a parts of Iraq, or even reach Iran. These options would be feasible. Since the beginning of 2012, two clear signs of this plan has emerged.
In recent months, Bashar al-Assad gave benefits to Kurds living in Syria; thousands of them got their citizenship after waiting for many years. In recent weeks, the Syrian government withdrew troops from the Kurdish northeast and sent them into the areas controlled by rebels. The safety of the move may have been underlined by further promises to the Kurds. This assures the safety of the path to be followed. Another critical point is the loyalty of those who follow Assad.
Those familiar with the situation in Syria probably shouted “Manaf Tlass!,” when I commented on the loyalty expected from the Republican Guard. Until he resigned in July, he was a Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard and member of Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. He is the son of the former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass and overall a very prominent figure in the Syrian Administration. His resignation was presented as a win for the rebels. However, it was unlikely to be so. He is too linked to the Assad regime—including with the first president of the dynasty—to be safe after his resignation. What determined his fate—and of others in the Guard—is his being Sunni. As such, he couldn’t be trusted for the delicate task Assad is apparently planning and was dismissed. Everything looks nice and tight for an emergency plan, except for one thing.
Moving such a mass of people and the core equipment needed for the new administration overland is not easy. Such a convoy takes time and space. It will be seen by a million predatory eyes. It can be intercepted in a million ways before it finds a haven. Assad must make sure that the most probable organization capable of blocking his move would be neutralized for a while. The IDF will for sure attempt to destroy such a convoy.
Recently, the IDF acknowledged it cannot deal with massive destruction of industrial and civilian infrastructure (see IDF: Home Front Command not ready for war with Iran). This is particularly grave due to the highly poisonous qualities of some of Israel’s industrial areas. This gives Assad an opportunity. The Republican Guard is responsible for the operation of chemical and biological weapons; Syria and Israel are among the largest owners of these in the world. If Assad decides to relocate out of Damascus, he will probably make sure a large distraction keeps the IDF busy. In another odd distortion of the phrase, Israel and Syria would become blood brothers.
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