Syria's rebels need to strike at the regime's backbone

If Syria's rebels are to achieve palpable results, they need an effective strategy that includes hitting the regime where it hurts.

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What if the Syrian regime crumbled today? Did the government lose control - at least briefly - when at least four of the regime's top figures were killed in a bomb attack in Damascus in July? In my opinion, it probably did.

Those officials, including the dictator's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, linked the regime's top echelons with the security apparatus in overseeing the daily repression. That chain was probably broken, for a brief period, before the embattled regime reasserted its control and the violence continued as usual.

But how would the regime's opponents know? They clearly lack the necessary tools even to immediately recognise a power vacuum, much less fill it. Even if the regime fell, the war would continue until people on both sides became aware of the vacuum. The rebels must keep this in mind.

If the rebels are to achieve palpable results, new strategies are needed. From interviews with activists, rebel fighters and regime's loyalists, there appear to be two critical areas where rebels must focus to break the stalemate.

First, strike the regime's backbone. The Assads increasingly rely on militia-like forces that carry out daily operations on the ground, with little supervision from the Damascus leadership. The Assads have undoubtedly signed off on the killing, but in the form of general directives, rather than tactical leadership. That is why day-to-day operations were hardly affected by the July bomb.

And that is why a political solution is so unlikely at present. The ground forces will keep on fighting as long as they believe they can win, which is a dynamic the regime recognises.

The state has disintegrated, in the sense that the top leadership is detached from the rank-and-file forces partly for practical reasons. Regime loyalists on the ground have often demanded that more force be used, and criticised Damascus for a "soft" approach.

Rank-and-file units are unfamiliar with the regime's strategic limitations, and are increasingly frustrated with its inability to crush the rebellion. Although most of these units are led by experienced officers, a significant number of regime fighters joined after the protests began 19 months ago. With the exception of the air force and elite units, such as the Republican Guard and the 4th Mechanised Brigade, the bulk of pro-government forces operate like unrestrained militias.

The war in Syria has morphed into localised battles of endurance, which often favours insurgents. In some cases, however, regime ground forces effectively act as irregular militias as well. That can be a strength as well as a weakness.

The regime's leaders still believe that they can win this conflict as long as the ground forces are resilient and able to fight a protracted civil war, which could last for several years.

If rank-and-file officers begin to feel that they are bearing the brunt of the fighting, they will recognise the limits of their power, and the importance of compromise to save their own skins.

The second area that rebels must work on is establishing political leadership with a strong presence on the ground. Contrary to popular belief, a unified political opposition is even more urgent than a unified command-and-control structure among the armed rebels. Many of the disagreements among anti-regime fighters are the result of rivalries at the political level - the most salient example is the distribution of arms according to political loyalties.

A unified on-the-ground resistance cannot be the prerequisite for assistance and weapons supplies.

A coherent political leadership, backed financially and politically by foreign states, is more urgent than ever. As the US magazine Foreign Policy reported on Tuesday, the US administration intends to launch a new Syrian opposition council during meetings in Qatar next week.

The present Syrian National Council has proved time and again that it cannot reform and become inclusive on its own. An international effort is needed to make that happen. Foreign countries, particularly those that wield influence because they supply arms and aid, can help to forge unity on the ground.

Political leadership must be connected to Syrians inside the country, working closely with activists and fighters, and begin to administer areas where the regime has little or no presence. When the opposition members inside Syria feel that they are sacrificing their lives, they naturally owe no allegiance to politicians living in hotels in foreign capitals.

Just as importantly, the presence of political leadership inside the country would begin to build a model to replace the regime. Assad opponents need to capitalise on the regime's weaknesses, instead of mirroring its behaviour. The dictator is trying to divide and rule; the opposition must unite and lead. He is alienating people by destroying neighbourhoods; the opposition must improve ties with ordinary Syrians, even those who do not support the revolution. Regime tactics work because opponents offer no coherent counterstrategy.

Rebels need effective weapons to be able to defend the areas where they operate. But even with better weapons, at best they can force the regime to negotiate, not cede power.

International diplomacy, personified by the envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, appears to be based on waiting until one side seeks negotiation. The rebels can force this to happen, but not with the current strategy.

On Twitter: @hhassan140