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West Must Help Syrian Rebels

The news from Syria suggests that the balance of power between the regime and its enemies is shifting against Bashar al-Assad and his loyalists. Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War writes, “The conflict in Syria is approaching a tipping point at which the insurgency will control more territory than the regime.” The rebel forces, he reports, number 40,000 men and they control their “own de facto safe zones around Homs city, in northern Hama, and in the Idlib countryside,” while the regime still holds “key urban centers in Damascus, Homs, and Idlib,” which were seized in offensives in February and March. The regime has so few loyal forces at its disposal that it will be hard put to mount a major offensive in the countryside while still retaining control of the urban areas.

That point is buttressed by this report from the field filed by Marine infantryman-turned-reporter Austin Tice, who has been embedded with the rebel forces. He writes:

Weeks of observation of Syrian military operations while traveling with rebel forces leave the impression that the Syrian army is unfamiliar with modern military tactics. It rarely engages rebel forces directly and appears instead to rely on poorly aimed and random fire to intimidate its opponents. Helicopters observed in northern and central portions of the country fly at an altitude that prevents their effective tactical employment.

It is not clear whether this is reflective of incompetence or dual loyalties among the government forces, but whatever the case, it indicates that the Syrian military is not as formidable as it appeared while slaughtering civilians in months past.

The need now is for the West to help the Syrian rebels become better organized. As Holliday writes: “The priority for U.S. policy on Syria should be to encourage the development of opposition structures that could one day establish a monopoly on the use of force. External support must flow into Syria in a way that reinforces the growth of legitimate and stable structures within the Syrian opposition movement.” Achieving that goal will require deeper American involvement with the rebel forces. As I have argued before, this is not a job we can leave to the Saudis or Qataris, lest they wind up backing jihadist groups.