Sticks over carrots: the rationale of Assad’s counterinsurgency ‘madness’

Syrian troops on patrol in Aleppo. Historically, what has the role of counterinsurgencies been in conflict zones? EPA/SANA

The Syrian civil war is in its 31st month and shows few signs of abating. The death toll is now estimated at over 115,000, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Understanding this level of violence isn’t easy. The Assad regime has relentlessly bombarded civilians, schools and hospitals: targets seemingly far removed from the militant opposition.

But while such a flagrant disregard for human rights may incense global observers, it is grounded in the calculated logic of “enemy-centric” counterinsurgency (COIN), with clear and definable objectives based on historical precedent.

The role of violence in western COIN

Counterinsurgency efforts by the west, particularly over the past decade, have emphasised the limitation of violence and the importance of the local population. FM3-24, the US military’s counterinsurgency manual, stresses this point in doctrine. For those executing this framework, COIN practice focuses on establishing the perception of state legitimacy in the area around which the insurgency is taking place.

The objective is to sway influence away from the insurgents and towards the regime by providing security, services, stability and growth. This gives a greater incentive for the target audience to side with the state, as it can provide a better deal than its insurgent alternatives.

In this form of counterinsurgency, violence plays a supplementary role. Human security (patrols, guard duty), policing, targeted killings and raids are its optimum form. The aim is to build the capabilities of the local government, while systematically degrading the insurgency’s ability to provide a viable alternative to that same authority.

By design, this “population-centric” approach to COIN tends to abhor excessive displays of force and intimidation. Such acts run counter to the overall effort, destroying trust and undermining confidence within the target population. But while needless harm and terror is heavily dissuaded in western counterinsurgency theory, prolific incidents have continued to occur.

Ultimately, however, these discrepancies remain as distant to normal practice, and importantly are not state-sanctioned.

Syrian (and Russian) approaches

By contrast, Syrian efforts in counterinsurgency have not only avoided securing the civilian population, but have actively targeted it. Whereas western COIN prioritises “the people”, the Syrian strategy focuses on the elimination of the militant opposition regardless of the collateral violence.

“Enemy-centric” approaches to counterinsurgency are nothing new, and follow their own logic to rationalise their prioritisation of violence.

Writing on Russian efforts in Chechnya, COIN practitioner and theorist Robert W. Schaefer notes that Moscow’s efforts have largely focused on disincentivising local support for the insurgency through the use of fear, propaganda, intimidation and violence, rather than trying to win over the Caucus population through incentives and good governance.

Violence – in the form of murder, rape, disappearances and indiscriminate bombardments – is used to punish and suppress transgressors, as well as to provide an example to others sympathetic to the cause of the Caucasus Emirate. While major reconstruction efforts have taken place in Chechnya, a climate of fear and threat persists under the Moscow-backed and internationally decried Kadyrov regime.

The Ba'athist war planners appear to be following a parallel path in Syria. Similar to Moscow, they utilise intense violence to divide public support from the insurgency by punishing the civil population. A comparable – if more intense – approach was utilised by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, in the Hama massacre.

In Hama in 1982, a month-long siege conducted against a militant faction of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood led to the deaths of an estimated 20,000 civilians and the utter destruction of the insurgent group. The city was pounded by artillery, tanks and airpower, reducing much of it to rubble. The regime took the suppression so far as to bulldoze the neighbourhoods of supporters and replace them with vast parking lots in an effort to stamp out their memory. To this day, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has yet to recover.

Current Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez employed violent counterinsurgency tactics to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982. FreedomHouse

The younger Assad is continuing this tradition, albeit over a much longer period with resources stretched much thinner. The targeting of refugees, schools and hospitals, and even the potential use of chemical weapons follows a dark kind of logic.

In effect, Assad is communicating with rebel sympathisers that their support for the opposition will only garner them woe, misery and scorched earth. Their only option, the message goes, is to surrender, accept their fate and return to the fold of the regime.

Successes and failures

Can this kind of “enemy-centric” approach succeed? Historically, the results are mixed. Although widespread use of violence enabled French COIN forces to win the so-called Battle of Algiers, the excesses committed in the capital contributed to their broader loss in the Algerian War of Independence. Public opinion quickly turned on the French colonialists, rather than the insurgents.

The Soviet COIN campaign in Afghanistan was infamous for its violent excesses and subsequent failure. Important in this campaign, however, was the immense international support for the insurgency. This is a dynamic we see replicated to some extent in Syria from countries like Saudi Arabia and the US.

Still, in other areas, a violent counterinsurgency approach can garner some success. Despite the losses of several hundred security personnel a year in the Caucasus to political violence, Russia has quashed all prospects of Chechen secessionism. A low-key insurgency still endures, but within the broader geostrategic stabilisation of regional borders, this is an acceptable “nuisance” for the Kremlin.

The ongoing Russian counterinsurgency in the Caucasus region continues to quash any hope of a Chechen secession. EPA/Yuri Kochetkov

While the population is still discontent with Russian rule, they are more wary of the instability, death and misery brought about by two decades of resistance and conflict against a state who has no compunction in exercising its monopoly on violence against its own. For many Chechens, the promises of the insurgents either ring hollow or are simply unappealing at this stage.

A similar public exhaustion would be highly desirable for the Ba'athist regime in Syria. It will continue to unleash untold destruction on its own citizens in insurgent-controlled areas, regardless of their degree of involvement with the resistance movement itself. Assad has even characterised himself as a surgeon amputating a diseased limb to save the overall patient.

In Assad’s mind, the loss of the innocent is a necessary cost for saving the state and the pre-war power structures endemic in its regime.

It must be remembered that successful counterinsurgency campaigns historically have an average length of over a decade. Less than three years into the Syrian civil war, any sort of conclusive outcome seems a distant pipe dream.