David Blair writes: The essential precondition for defeating Isil is to turn the Sunni population against them. The corollary is that only a largely Sunni force can achieve strategic victory against Isil.
The rank-and-file of the old Syrian army was mainly Sunni, reflecting the composition of the country’s population. But the old Syrian army has been put through the meat-grinder represented by over four years of civil war.
Before the insurrection against Assad began in 2011, the army had a paper strength of 220,000. Yet a huge proportion of that number – possibly the majority – defected to the rebels in the first 18 months of the uprising.
By the summer of 2012, Assad had placed the survival of his regime in the hands of only two units: the 4th Armoured Division and the Republican Guard. Both were recruited disproportionately from Assad’s own Alawite sect – and the 4th Armoured Division was commanded by his brother, Maher. The combined strength of both formations was never more than 30,000 men, or 14 per cent of the old army. Assad had effectively written off the other 86 per cent.
Since then, even these two units have been badly mauled. Today, the backbone of Assad’s forces is provided by Hizbollah, the radical Shia movement based in Lebanon, and the “National Defence Force”, a new Alawite-dominated militia, armed and trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
So Assad now commands a largely Shia and Alawite force, backed by Christian Russia and Shia Iran. He is a leader kept in power by foreign bayonets. His fighters also have a blood-curdling record of sectarian massacres of Sunnis. After more than four years of wanton slaughter, involving hideous barrel bombs and poison gas, Assad has been responsible for the deaths of more Sunnis than any man alive.
I put the conclusion delicately: it is not obvious that a force of this kind is best placed to drive a wedge between Isil and the Sunni population. If you really compelled the Sunnis of eastern Syria to choose between Isil and Assad – with his Shia and Alawite fighters steeped in Sunni blood – then they might make a very inconvenient decision. [Continue reading…]