It’s been a bloody month for attacks on government-held areas and forces. On May 8, rebel forces flattened the Carlton Citadel Hotel, one of the Syrian army’s main bases in Aleppo; a May 23 mortar attack on an Assad rally left 30 dead in the southern province of Deraa; and on Tuesday, Jabhat al-Nusra claimed responsibility for multiple car combs that exploded this weekend in government-controlled areas of Homs.
Analysts attribute the surge in violence to Syria’s June 3 presidential election – specifically, a desire to disrupt it, as rebel forces and opposition groups criticize the poll as a farce.
We asked Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at the Eurasia Group, to weigh in on the dynamics and implications of the heightened attacks.
Syria Deeply: What has led to the attacks on government-held areas and troops?
Ayham Kamel: I don’t think we’ve seen something happening for a prolonged period of time that signals a shift in either strategy or the capacity of the rebel forces. One thing to look at right now is a unified rebel strategy across all fronts: I don’t think it exists. Different rebel groups on different fronts are implementing different strategies. There’s a rise in the use of car bombs and suicide bombings. But that’s not a signal of a breakdown on the [Assad] front, but a signal that [the opposition is veering from traditional methods and] sending in either car bombs or suicide bombers.
The attacks have been different. The Carlton strategy [tunneling to plant massive explosives] is different, that’s more of a military activity. The Homs bombing is much more of a nonconventional (or terrorist) strategy that aims to attack civilians, because Homs has come further under regime control. And in the south, you see more of a [disparate] military reaction. This is all a reflection of what’s happening on the battlefield and the new tools you can use within specific Syrian geographies.
Syria Deeply: Is there an uptick in violence because of the presidential elections?
Kamel: Absolutely. All rebel groups are looking to undermine the government’s stability and launch a very aggressive push to demonstrate that the country is not stable and that the regime is not able to hold elections in a stable environment.
Syria Deeply: Do you expect it to get worse in the coming week?
Kamel: The violence will absolutely get worse. But the ability of the two sides to really shift things in just weeks is limited. There’s a general trajectory to this conflict, and though both sides like to connect military achievements to political causes, no one side is able to do it. Battlefield campaigns take time. Assad won’t be able to stabilize regime controlled areas throughout the country, but the rebels won’t be able to militarily undermine them. We’re looking at minor shifts or upticks in violence that are really attempts by the regime to increase stability or, for the opposition, to undermine the credibility of these elections.
At the end of the day, the elections will not be legitimate. But what the regime is trying to do is create a quasi-legit political process that serves as an alternative to political violence and appeals to a large segment of the Syrian population. What the opposition can do in this case is to increase its attacks, but for the most part, there’s very little it can do at this stage. The military balance is set for the next few weeks.
Syria Deeply: How physically safe is Assad feeling in the wake of attacks on his troops and pre-election rallies?
Kamel: I would imagine that he’s more comfortable doing things in Damascus today than he was six months ago. So that’s a reflection of what the security in Damascus is like now, compared to what it was a few months ago.
Syria Deeply: What will the rebels be targeting on June 3?
Kamel: You’ll get attacks on polling stations, attempts by different groups to prevent pro-regime civilians or others from voting. But the rebels’ real aim on election day will be to prevent a high turnout from regime-controlled areas in a way that really undermines the appeal of this election process.
The regime’s plan is not only to have its [Alawite] base vote for Assad: the election aims to attract more of the middle-ground Syrians who are tired of the conflict and would like to see a degree of normalcy begin to return to their cities. Attacks by the opposition would not only weaken the appeal of the election process for would-be Assad voters, but in a much more fundamental way, it would undermine the viability of any future regime-guided political process.