Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Can Syria's rebel fighters overthrow Bashar al-Assad? An interview with Jellyfish Operations

As fighters attempt to regroup in advance of a new strategy to overpower Assad, and Western powers try to start from scratch with a new rebel formation that is presumably devoid of Salafi Jihadists, the US is calling on third party, non-state actors to arm the rebels in order to avoid becoming embroiled in a geopolitically sensitive conflict just ahead of presidential elections.

Syrian rebels seized a border crossing with Turkey and pulled down the Syrian flag (AP)
Syrian rebels seized a border crossing with Turkey and pulled down the Syrian flag (AP)
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad
This image made from amateur video purports to show smoke from intense shelling in the Tel Chehab area of Daraa, Syria.(AP Photo/Shaam News Network SNN)
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian president, Bashar Assad, performs Eid prayers in the Hamad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012. Assad prayed early on Sunday at the start of Eid al-Fitr, a three-day holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. The last time he appeared in public was on Wednesday, July 4, 2012 when he gave a speech in parliament. (AP Photo/SANA)
A Syrian man holds bullets he picked from a wall in a damaged house in town of Atareb outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo)
In this Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 photograph, Syrians on a motorcycle pass by a destroyed shop in town of Atareb outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
In this Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers hold their weapons during clashes with government forces in at the south-west district of Salah al-Din in Aleppo, Syria. Syrian troops launched a ground assault Wednesday on the besieged northern city of Aleppo, but activists said rebels forces were fighting back in a battle for the country's largest city that has raged for more than two weeks. (AP Photo/Alberto Prieto)
In this Sunday Aug. 5, 2012 photo, a couch is seen in a damaged room in a destroyed house in town of Atareb on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo)
In this Sunday Aug. 5, 2012 photo, destroyed shops are seen in the town of Atareb on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
In this Monday, Aug. 6, 2012 photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter waves from the top of a destroyed army tank in the town of Anadan on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
A Syrian boy stand in the rubble of a destroyed police station at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria July 29, 201
In this Tuesday, July 24, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers are seen at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. Turkey sealed its border with Syria to trucks on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 cutting off a vital supply line to the embattled nation as fighting stretched into its fifth day in the commercial capital of Aleppo. (AP Photo/Turkpix)
A Syrian boy looks at the bodies of nine Syrians on a truck after they were found dead in an open field and taken to the town of Anadan outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
In this Friday, July 27, 2012 photo, armed Syrian rebels stand beside a destroyed Syrian army armored vehicle in Homs, Syria. It has been a difficult two weeks for the Syrian government with rebel assaults first on the capital, Damascus, and then on Aleppo, as well as several high-profile defections and a bomb that killed four top security officials. (AP Photo/Fadi Zaidan)
In this Friday, July 20, 2012 photo, destroyed Syrian army armored vehicles are seen in Aleppo, Syria. It has been a difficult two weeks for the Syrian government with rebel assaults first on the capital, Damascus, and then on Aleppo, as well as several high-profile defections and a bomb that killed four top security officials. (AP Photo/Fadi Zaidan)
In this Tuesday, 24 July, 2012 photo a destroyed Syrian tank is seen in Idlib, Syria. It has been a difficult two weeks for the Syrian government with rebel assaults first on the capital, Damascus, and then on Aleppo, as well as several high-profile defections and a bomb that killed four top security officials. (AP Photo/Fadi Zaidan)
In this image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Monday, July 23, 2012, a Free Syrian Army soldier reacts during clashes with Syrian government troops in Aleppo, Syria. The Syrian regime acknowledged for the first time Monday that it possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and said it will only use them in case of a foreign attack and never internally against its own citizens. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video) TV OUT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CANNOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT, DATE, LOCATION OR AUTHENTICITY OF THIS MATERIAL
In this image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Monday, July 23, 2012, a Free Syrian Army soldier reacts during clashes with Syrian government troops in Aleppo, Syria. The Syrian regime acknowledged for the first time Monday that it possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and said it will only use them in case of a foreign attack and never internally against its own citizens. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video) TV OUT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CANNOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT, DATE, LOCATION OR AUTHENTICITY OF THIS MATERIAL
In this Sunday, July 29, 2012 photo, medics help a wounded man at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. The U.N. said 200,000 Syrians have fled the embattled city of Aleppo since intense clashes between regime forces and rebels began 10 days ago. The government forces turned mortars, tank and helicopter gunships against rebel positions on Monday, July 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Turkpix)
In this Sunday, July 29, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers are seen at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. The U.N. said 200,000 Syrians have fled the embattled city of Aleppo since intense clashes between regime forces and rebels began 10 days ago. The government forces turned mortars, tank and helicopter gunships against rebel positions on Monday, July 30, 2012. Arabic writing on the truck reads, "the movement of Islamic bombings is from the writings of Sheikh Ibn Taymiyyah." (AP Photo/Turkpix)
People carry a body of a person killed in clashes in Aleppo, Syria, Friday, July 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Alberto Prieto)
In this Sunday, July 29, 2012 photo, medics help a wounded man at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. The U.N. said 200,000 Syrians have fled the embattled city of Aleppo since intense clashes between regime forces and rebels began 10 days ago. The government forces turned mortars, tank and helicopter gunships against rebel positions on Monday, July 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Turkpix)
In this image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Tuesday, July 24, 2012, a Free Syrian Army solider fires his weapon during clashes with Syrian government troops in Aleppo, Syria. Turkey sealed its border with Syria to trucks on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 cutting off a vital supply line to the embattled nation as fighting stretched into its fifth day in the commercial capital of Aleppo. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video) TV OUT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CANNOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT, DATE, LOCATION OR AUTHENTICITY OF THIS MATERIAL
In this Tuesday, July 24, 2012 photo, a damaged Syrian military tank is seen at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. Turkey sealed its border with Syria to trucks on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 cutting off a vital supply line to the embattled nation as fighting stretched into its fifth day in the commercial capital of Aleppo. (AP Photo/Turkpix)
Free Syrian Army fighters swim in a pool on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, June 12, 2012. On Tuesday, Syrian forces pelted the eastern city of Deir el-Zour with mortars as anti-government protesters were dispersing before dawn Tuesday, killing several people, activists said. The offensives were part of an escalation of violence in recent weeks that has brought more international pressure on President Bashar Assad's regime faces over its brutal tactics against the opposition. The U.N. accused the government of using children as human shields in a new report. (AP Photo)
In this image made from amateur video released by Shaam News Network and accessed Monday, June 11, 2012, purports to show smoke near a mosque from Syrian government forces shelling in Rastan town in Homs province, Syria. Syrian troops attacked a central, rebel-held town with helicopter gunships Monday and shelled other restive areas across the nation, activists said. The aerial assault targeted the strategic river crossing town of Rastan, which has resisted repeated government offensives for months, the activists said. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video) TV OUT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CANNOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT, DATE, LOCATION OR AUTHENTICITY OF THIS MATERIAL
This citizen journalism image released by Sham News Network taken on Saturday June 9, 2012, purports to show anti-Syrian regime mourners carrying the coffins of Syrian citizens killed in shelling by Syrian troops, in Daraa, Syria. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, tens died in heavy pre-dawn shelling on Saturday in Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. (AP Photo) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS CITIZEN JOURNALIST IMAGE
This citizen journalism image released by Sham News Network taken on Saturday June 9, 2012, purports to show anti-Syrian regime mourners raising their hands as they carry the coffins of Syrian citizens killed by Syrian troops, in Daraa, Syria. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, tens died in heavy pre-dawn shelling on Saturday in Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. (AP Photo) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS CITIZEN JOURNALIST IMAGE
In this image made available on Tuesday June 12, 2012 smoke rises from a residential area of Talbisah in Homs city Syria Saturday June 9, 2012. (AP Photo/David Manyua/United Nations )
This video image taken from amateur video and broadcast by Bambuser/Homslive shows a series of devastating explosions rocking the central Syrian city of Homs, Syria, Monday, June 11, 2012. Live streaming video caught the devastation during one of the heaviest examples of violence since the uprisings began over a year ago. ( Photo/Bambuser/Homslive via AP video) MANDATORY CREDIT: BAMBUSER/HOMSLIVE
A shell is seen in a street at a residential area of Talbisah in Homs city Syria Monday June 11, 2012. (AP Photo/David Manyua/United Nations )
In this image made available on Tuesday June 12, 2012 smoke rises from a residential area of Talbisah in Homs city Syria Saturday June 9, 2012. (AP Photo/David Manyua/United Nations )
Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, June 12, 2012. On Tuesday, Syrian forces pelted the eastern city of Deir el-Zour with mortars as anti-government protesters were dispersing before dawn Tuesday, killing several people, activists said. The offensives were part of an escalation of violence in recent weeks that has brought more international pressure on President Bashar Assad's regime faces over its brutal tactics against the opposition. The U.N. accused the government of using children as human shields in a new report. (AP Photo)
This video image taken from amateur video and broadcast by Bambuser/Homslive shows a series of devastating explosions rocking the central Syrian city of Homs, Syria, Monday, June 11, 2012. Live streaming video caught the devastation during one of the heaviest examples of violence since the uprisings began over a year ago. (Photo/Bambuser/Homslive via AP video) MANDATORY CREDIT: BAMBUSER/HOMSLIVE
This video image taken from amateur video and broadcast by Bambuser/Homslive shows a series of devastating explosions rocking the central Syrian city of Homs, Syria, Monday, June 11, 2012. Live streaming video caught the devastation during one of the heaviest examples of violence since the uprisings began over a year ago. (Photo/Bambuser/Homslive via AP video) MANDATORY CREDIT: BAMBUSER/HOMSLIVE
Syrians look at a destroyed military tank at the northern town of Ariha, on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria
French Ambassador Eric Chevallier, center, receives the body of slain French photojournalist Remi Ochlik in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, March 3, 2012. Syrian Red Crescent officials handed over to embassy officials Saturday the bodies of two foreign journalists who were killed in shelling while trapped inside a besieged district in Syria's central city of Homs. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)
A man teaches Bilal, 11, right, how to use a toy rocket propelled grenade in Idlib, north Syria, Sunday, March 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Free Syrian Army fighters chant anti-government slogans as they hold up their weapons near a building hit by a Syrian Army tank in Idlib, north Syria, Sunday, March 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Syrians hold photos of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a pro-Syrian regime protest in front of the Russian embassy in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, March 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)
Photos of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are seen during a pro-Syrian regime protest in front of the Russian embassy in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, March 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)
A Syrian Red Crescent worker is seen inside an ambulance carrying the coffin of French photojournalist Remi Ochlik in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, March 3, 2012. Syrian Red Crescent officials handed over to embassy officials Saturday the bodies of two foreign journalists who were killed in shelling while trapped inside a besieged district in Syria's central city of Homs. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)
Men bury three Free Syrian Army fighters allegedly killed by the Syrian Army during their funeral in Idlib, north Syria, Saturday, March 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Mourners gather at a funeral for three Free Syrian Army fighters allegedly killed by the Syrian Army in Idlib, north Syria, Saturday, March 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Men try to get gasoline at a gas station in downtown Idlib, north Syria, Saturday, March 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Cemetery workers prepare graves for a three Free Syrian Army fighters in Idlib, north Syria, Saturday, March 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
A man teaches Bilal, 11, how to use a toy rocket propelled grenade in Idlib, north Syria, Sunday, March 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

As attentions turn to the chaos breaking out across the Middle East and North Africa (and even further afield), what chance do the rebels have of pushing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to his limits? Michael Bagley, president of the private intelligence and analysis boutique Jellyfish Operations - which has adopted an approach that is contrary to the typical 'yes-man' characteristics of its competitors, talks to Jen Alic.

In the interview, Mr Bagley discusses:

  • If the rebels can defeat Assad
  • What strategy the rebels need to adopt to be successful
  • Why Al-Qaeda’s growing presence benefits Assad
  • Why Assad’s strategy to weaken the rebels is working
  • Who is going to arm the rebels
  • Why the US and Europe can’t intervene
  • Why the US can’t make the same mistakes they made in Libya
  • How to rid the rebels of extremist forces

Jen Alic: Let’s just start out with the biggest question on everyone’s mind. Can the rebels defeat Assad?



Michael Bagley: Certainly, they can, but to fully answer this question we have to look backwards and forwards. It was a grave mistake for the US and its Arab allies to purposefully facilitate an influx of foreign fighters, namely Salafi jihadists, into Syria through the Turkish border to boost the ranks of the Syrian rebels. Now the rebels are in a tough position, and clearly everyone is having second thoughts about this disastrous strategy, not least the true rebels themselves. This temporary solution to the rebels’ inadequate manpower is now a not-so-temporary setback. This is the first problem that must be resolved.



Alic: The next obvious question, then, is how does one get rid of extremist forces it has welcomed into its ranks?



Bagley: The US has a tendency to temporarily befriend enemy jihadists, let them serve their purposes and then turn against them, creating even more vehement enemies in the process. This is what went horribly wrong in Libya last week. The rebels have already lost control of their Salafi jihadist elements, and along with that, the “hearts and minds” of the citizens who would otherwise have supported them wholeheartedly. Now that support is based on fear as much as it is on love—fear of the extremists. There has already been one rather high-profile assassination of a key jihadist commander, but this is not a realistic solution to the problem. The only way the rebels will defeat the jihadists is to defeat Assad on their own terms.



Alic: On Sunday, Syria’s Foreign Ministry, in a letter to the UN Security Council and Secretary-General Bank Ki-Moon, accused Turkey of allowing al-Qaeda fighters to cross into Syria. According to Syria, their numbers are in the thousands. How would you respond to this?



Bagley: Yes, the strategy is most unfortunate also because it gives Assad ammunition in the UN Security Council. Assad has always accused the rebels of being “terrorists”, even when the conflict first flared up and before “foreign fighters” were allowed to hijack the genuine rebel movement. Now Assad is being legitimized in a way that no one wants to see.



Assad is attempting, successfully, to foment worsening relations among the various sects in Syria to ensure there can be no united rebel force strong enough to affect his defeat. Not only are we dealing with “foreign fighters”, but criminal interests are stepping in to take advantage of the situation, and the population is being divided along sectarian lines, which will only be further exacerbated by the developments that began in Libya last week and quickly spread across the region.



Alic: What do you make of reports of the formation of a new rebel group call the Syrian National Army, apparently supported by Turkey, France and the US?



Bagley: This is more or less the revolution “Take II” and hopefully lighter on the jihadist element. It’s the Western powers trying to right a wrong, to undo the ill-conceived strategy that they started out with. What is disturbing is that this signals that the Free Syrian Army has failed and that there is a need to start over, which will result in a serious loss of momentum, and possibly another conflict front that buys into Assad’s overall plan to weaken the rebels. The “new” rebel group is not in itself a bad development and its commander, defected Major General Muhammad al-Haj Ali purportedly is against international intervention in the form of the establishment of a no-fly zone, and he is correct in this at this point because Assad has blurred the lines too much to make a no-fly zone effective.



Alic: Why will this new group be more effective?



Bagley: It may not be. I think what is most important to understand, is that groups like the Free Syrian Army and this new Syrian National Army are by no means the backbone of the revolution. These groups largely are represented by exiled opposition leaders or defected military figures, who are not cohesive. Most of them are in Turkey and Jordan. On the ground, though, there are smaller rebel groups who have managed to establish their own organizational structures and who have been successful in replacing the regime, but not on a national level, only in small areas that are easier to control. It is this momentum upon which we need to build, and it is these smaller groups that the new Syrian National Army should focus on organizing into a national undertaking. If, from exile, the Syrian National Army can coordinate the efforts of these smaller groups instead of attempting to usurp them, they will be successful.



Alic: Assuming the rebels can re-take the revolution, so to speak, from the jihadist elements and overcome their own disunity, what shifts in strategy do they need to adopt in order to gain momentum?



Bagley: The rebels are attempting to change their strategy, demonstrated by the shooting down of a regime helicopter and the targeting of a military base recently. Overall, the rebels need to move away from ad-hoc guerilla warfare and adopt a more conventional military approach, focusing in military targets and hitting at Assad’s capacity to launch air raids that take out civilians in areas where the regime is tracking rebel concentrations. They need to go on the offensive against the regime’s capabilities, not engage in street battles with regime soldiers. For this they need heavy weapons, RPGs and MANPADS, for instance, and a great deal more high-tech equipment than they currently have.



They also need to hit at the sources of the regime’s weapons. They need a much bigger picture strategy in order to protect civilians, which is at the heart of their overall agenda, and they need to be viewed as “protectors” if they are to succeed. For starters, they need to stop shipments of weapons coming in from Iran via Iraq. To do this, they need intelligence.



Alic: And who is going to arm the rebels?



Bagley: That would be the million-dollar question. The US will not intervene directly ahead of presidential elections. Europe cannot intervene. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are more interested in Salafi jihadists getting the upper hand over the “original rebels”. The US is openly calling essentially for private donations to enable the rebels to buy weapons. In the end, they will be armed by the private sector, but so far the money is not there. It’s possible that donors are waiting to see what kind of strategy the rebels can come up with. But Iran may unwittingly force the hand of the “donors” to move more quickly.



Alic: On Sunday, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps made a public statement to the effect that Iran is assisting Syria militarily and may become directly involved if they feel the regime is truly threatened by external forces.



Bagley: Yes, this was interesting as it was the first time Iran has publicly admitted its assistance to Syria. However, there are also some internal Iranian politics to consider here; specifically that this statement came from the Revolutionary Guards and not from Tehran.



There seems to be a difference of opinion among Iranian power-brokers as to how to handle the situation in Syria. The Revolutionary Guards would like to play a more active role in the conflict, while the Iranian Supreme Leader is playing things more cautiously. What is significant here is that the Guards report directly to the Supreme Leader, and for the first time the Guards seem to be overstepping their bounds.



Alic: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us Michael.

This story originally appeared on Oilprice.com

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