What is really going on in Syria? There are no shortages of hysterical opinions. Rebel spokesmen claim that Assad is being aided by IRGC and Hezbollah forces. Assad's spokesmen claim the rebels are no more than armed bandits and thugs aided by western intelligence agencies and al Qaeda terrorists. The truth is certainly a lot more muddled than any of these opinions. As General Dempsey said, "… I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point." In my last stab at describing the Syrian insurgents, I noted the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian National Council (SNC) who laid claim to representing and leading the armed insurgency, in the case of the FSA, and the protest movement in the case of the SNC. Both these groups are operating in Turkey. Recently a third group surfaced when a former FSA spokesman announced the formation of the Higher Military Council. This lack of unity and outright rivalry sounds like the Libyans' present dilemma where local militias remain independent and largely unresponsive to any central authority. Luckily, at least in my opinion, all the competing entities claiming they speak for the insurgents and protesters inside Syria are not in Syria.
The clearest answer I have found to the question of who are the rebels is in the writings of Nir Rosen who spent two months in Syria late last summer. The armed insurgents refer to themselves as muqawama or resistance. They are young and organized at the local level. Rosen describes them as using classic insurgent techniques of providing services to the population much as Hamas and Hezbollah do. We often hear of them protecting demonstrators from regime intelligence and security forces. There are not that many defectors among these local armed insurgent groups. In addition to the armed resistance there is a much wider protest movement organized and led on a local level. The leaders of these protest movements are older, wiser and stay in the shadows. They do coordinate actions with their counterparts in neighboring towns. These local movements generally support the SNC, but the SNC does not direct the local protest movements. There is no central or unified leadership for the armed revolution.
As I alluded to earlier, reports of al Qaeda fighters and foreign intelligence agencies operating with the Syrian insurgents are greatly exaggerated. Some inconsequential number of foreigners may have joined the protesters and insurgents, but the reports are largely regime propaganda and conspiracy theories. Foreign contact in the form of political, logistical and military support is probably limited to the FSA and SNC based outside Syria. However, foreign interest in supporting either regime change or regime survival is real. This situation is bound to change as all outside interests figure out what they are willing to pay to get what they want.
Should we arm the rebels? General Dempsey recently stated that, "it's premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria." I agree. We should be identifying and contacting the local protest movements and their leaders inside Syria… groups such as the Homs Revolutionary Council. This is the preparation and initial contact phases I described in my post on UW. At some point, I believe soon, we should move to advise and support the resistance inside Syria. Help the rebels create safe havens for the protest movement. A military stalemate may be a better solution at this time. Let's not call for a direct violent overthrow of the Assad regime. I'm sure Assad and those around him have visions of ending up displayed in their local grocer's freezer section with knives up their arses and bullets in their brains if they don't prevail over the rebels. They will naturally do all in their power to avoid that fate. A military stalemate and continued outside pressure, coupled with encouragement, on the regime may allow the protest movement and the regime to yet find a political solution… if one is still possible.