Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers

Claim #5: The Regime Controls Only 30 Percent of the Country

The rebels and their international supporters have attempted to exclude the regime from negotiations concerning the future of Syria, asserting that there can be no dialogue unless and until Bashar al-Assad is removed from power. This position seems tenable because it is believed that the collapse of the regime is imminent and inevitable–a claim that has been made, and defied, for nearly two years now.[30] As the latest evidence for their conviction, policymakers point to intelligence suggesting that the regime retains control over less than a third of the country.

Before beginning to analyze the content of this claim, we would do well to note the source: former Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab. He delivered these claims upon defecting to the opposition and taking refuge in Jordan.[31] Given the incentives and pressures he would be facing to provide “inside information” that supports his new allies and undermines the regime, we may be concerned about the accuracy of his claims: it was a defector from Iraq’s Baathist regime, Ahmed Chalabi, who insisted that Saddam Hussein had an active chemical weapons program; he later admitted to fabricating his evidence in a bid to have the U.S. overthrow his political adversary.[32]

But even if we accept Mr. Hijab’s claims at face value, what do the numbers tell us?

First, it should be noted that the government’s geographical sovereignty may not be a good indicator of how much of the Syrian population remains under their control. Most of the country’s citizenry is concentrated in and around the sister cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and along the coastline to the West; these areas remain largely under government control.[33] Additionally, scores of Syrians displaced by the conflict have migrated from rebel territories and to government-held areas.[34] That is, by most indications a majority of the Syrian population seems to remain under government control, regardless of how much territory is still under direct state administration.

Moreover, if only 30 percent of Syria’s geography is being directly overseen by the regime, this neither entails nor implies that the rebels control the other 70 percent. In fact, the rebels do not really administer any of Syria, as they do not have any organization, to speak of. Moreover, as previously explored, they do not have the manpower to dedicate forces to holding or overseeing large swaths of the country. Most of their forces are concentrated on the battlefronts, and they have not even been able to hold these territories for very long in direct confrontation with regime forces.

Who controls the rest of the country, then? No one. It is operating largely autonomously, community by community, with an increasing number of territories being taken over by unaffiliated warlords.[35] While there certainly are some communities that are hostile to the regime and/or supportive of the rebels, this does not seem to be the norm. Generally speaking, the level of coordination between “liberated” communities and the various rebel groups appears to be minimal. In fact, there is an increasing trend of “community brigades” preventing rebels from re-entering areas after the regime drives them out.[36] This is because the rebels tend to draw the regime into confronting them in a given area, but they cannot actually stand up to the Syrian Army in direct combat. This is typical of the majority of civil wars, as the state is usually the stronger actor. Once the bombardment begins, the rebels flee, leaving the locals to bury the dead and pick up the pieces–and in the interim consuming scarce community resources and often committing crimes against the locals.[37] As a result, large swaths of the country have decided that they have had enough: nothing good can come of hosting rebels in their area.

Accordingly, the rebel forces seem to have largely given up hope of taking and holding territory. Instead, they have been trying to goad the regime into conflict near the borders with Turkey and Israel, which are relatively safer and where they know the Syrian Army will risk retaliatory fire or even more drastic intervention if they make a misstep in pursuit of insurgent forces. Secondarily, rebel forces have begun raiding military depots in order to increase their own armaments while depriving the regime of these resources.[38] Finally, they have escalated the conflict in and around Damascus, largely along ethnic and religious fault-lines.[39] It remains to be seen how effective these tactics will be, but they seem more promising than attempting to gradually take over the country, which has proven largely unsuccessful, despite popular narratives to the contrary.


Claim #6: Foreign Jihadists Are Only 10 Percent of the Rebel Fighters

While it may be true, strictly speaking, that only 10 percent of the rebel fighters are from jihadist groups, this statistic belies the immense influence that this relatively small population has had on the trajectory of the conflict.

Prior to the increased involvement of jihadists, the Syrian opposition was demoralized, on the defensive, and unable to deliver any significant blows against the regime.[40] However, the Iraqi insurgent group Liwa al-Islam was responsible for the July 18, 2012, suicide bombing that killed a host of high-ranking regime officials, including Bashar’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat.[41] From there, the al-Nusra Front (an affiliate of al-Qaeda) spearheaded campaigns into Aleppo and Damascus[42] in order to “take the fight to the regime.” They have since claimed responsibility for a number of effective suicide bombings that killed scores of soldiers and some high-priority targets.[43] These developments seem to be giving the rebellion a “second wind.”

Beyond reinvigorating the opposition, these groups have also had a marked influence on the rebels’ tactics. Increasingly, insurgent forces are deploying IEDs (indicative of the involvement of al-Qaeda in Iraq), as well as suicide and other bombings. Moreover, they are developing increasingly sophisticated guerrilla-warfare tactics. As an example, they have begun drawing the regime into conflict in heavily populated areas, hamstringing the regime’s more powerful weapons or forcing the government to kill civilians and destroy critical infrastructure in pursuit of the rebels, thereby drawing others into the fight. Finally, the rebels have begun summarily executing large numbers of captured soldiers and government officials. This is a war crime, and a trend started by the al-Nusra Front (increasingly, these executions include beheadings).

Moreover, foreign jihadist organizations are typically much better armed than the FSA, importing heavy weapons from the conflict zones of Libya and Iraq. This allows them to more directly confront the regime’s helicopters, tanks and planes. So, while these groups may comprise a small part of the opposition, their impact has been immense; arguably, they are the most effective bloc of the opposition forces. And they will comprise an increasingly large share of the fighting forces going forward, as there has been a steep decline in new indigenous recruits but a steady stream of foreign fighters pouring into the country. Even among the local forces, many are joining jihadist organizations because they tend to be better funded, armed and organized than their secular or nationalist counterparts; moreover, they tend to be less corrupt.[44]

However, even as they are having a positive impact on the rebels’ effectiveness militarily, the jihadist groups severely undermine opposition efforts geopolitically to obtain international recognition, funding, arms or intervention. Many world powers are concerned that jihadist groups will attempt to establish a “shariah state” should the al-Asad regime fall,[45] or that they may foster widespread ethnic and religious cleansing in the aftermath of the war, as has been the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as is typically the case in the event of military resolutions to identity conflicts.[46] There are further concerns about terrorists getting their hands on Syria’s chemical and biological weapons.[47] And these are just concerns for within Syria:

Neighboring Israel is concerned that, should the regime fall, they may be the next target of the jihadist fighters amassing near their border with Syria. Jordan is wary due to a recently foiled terror plot against Jordanian targets with weapons that were provided to the Syrian rebels.[48] Turkey is facing increased terror attacks from the PKK as a result of the conflict.[49] There are concerns that the sectarian conflict could spill into neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, especially following the Beirut car bombing that killed senior Lebanese intelligence chief and prominent Sunni politician Wissam al-Hassan.[50]

In short, while jihadist groups represent a small share of the rebel population, they may be the single most influential segment of the opposition, militarily or geopolitically, for better or worse. Focusing primarily on the number of jihadists obscures their significance. As was the case in Libya, it is likely that the disproportionate influence of these jihadists will be retained even if the regime should fall, especially in the event of a disorderly collapse of the state.


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