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Syria’s Army and the I.E.D.

A report on The New York Times on Thursday described the adoption by the armed opposition to President President Bashar al-Assad of the makeshift bomb as a primary weapon in Syria’s war. 

The opposition’s rapid mastery of improvised explosives since the spring changed the character and momentum of this conflict, and put Syria’s army, notwithstanding what seems its enduring material strength, in a highly unenviable position.

All of this will be grounds for much more work, analysis and comment than can be shoe-horned into one news story.  Military historians will spend time on these themes. This is in part because the turnabout here – a government that long exported improvised explosive technology in the region now stands to have its army unraveled by improvised explosives — is compelling. But the commentary will be richer and more subtle than that, ranging from technical analysis to moral querying, and to arguments over how to label and engage the various forces within the anti-Assad opposition, and their war.

But for the moment let’s stick to talk of weapons and tactics, the engines by which conflicts run their course.

So then, strictly from this perspective, what does it all mean?  

Please accept an apology in advance for hard language at the end of this post. We went to Antakya earlier this month to examine weapons and assess the role of makeshift bombs in the war, and since several readers asked, I’ll speak about what was evident almost exactly as I spoke to a fellow former grunt the other day, before the assassinations in Damascus.  He asked a similar question: What’s your take on all these bombs?

That’s easy. In the context of this war, they mean that the Syrian army is finished.

Let’s run through it. We’ll set out from a generous position, and assume that Mr. Assad’s military is more potent than it actually is. By that I mean Syria’s army may for the time being remain large and well-equipped with armor and conventional arms. It may have deep ammunition stores, and it may retain under its command a cadre of officers and non-commissioned officers in forward-positioned units that can integrate mortars, artillery and ground-to-ground rockets in very dangerous ways. It may still have offensive-minded infantry infantry units and Alawite paramilitary formations that can, in a head-to-head contest for a neighborhood, city or town put up a sustained, block-by-block fight, and come out the far side with enough combat strength for the inevitable next day. It may even believe in what it is doing (though I’d doubt that in its ranks confidence runs wide or deep). It may also have on paper a military reserve with members who would answer a come-to-duty call (though I  doubt that, too). And it may for a while continue to be supported by attack and transport helicopter squadrons that can keep far-flung units under air cover and well supplied, and that can assure that its wounded are in reasonable reach of medical care. Its intelligence sections may still be collecting and analyzing useful information in real time. Its military communication networks may even still be robust, allowing all of these interconnected strands of a military campaign to work.  Its new defense minister may have the skills and personality to influence the military’s actions in effective ways.

Everything above at this point is unlikely to be true. Some of it mostly certainly is not. No matter. Put together the bits you know and bits you can assess and the mosaic presents roughly the same picture: In the near term the Syrian army and its paramilitary partners are probably still capable of enormous amounts of killing. And that does matter. But the Syrian army’s continued capacity for lethality will not change the uprising’s military arc. And more killing might only exacerbate the Syrian army’s difficulties. Why? Because looked at coldly the Syrian army, which began the war as the biggest man in the bar, has been on a bloody and agonizing one-direction ride. You can make a social argument here, which should serve as a warning for other crackdown artists or champions of conventional military units’ roles in the irregular wars or our age: This is the modern-day outcome of using blunt force against a potentially large, determined and angry enemy on its own turf with a bulky and a doctrinally incoherent force that must make things up as it goes.* That argument will probably stand. But then come the particulars that explain how an army, which set out pitted against an essentially unarmed foe, will lose. This is where the I.E.D. fits in. Once the armed opposition mastered the I.E.D. and spiked with bombs much of the very ground that any military seeking to control Syria must cover, and Syria’s army lacked a deep bench of well-trained explosive ordnance disposal teams and the suites of electronic and defensive equipment for its vehicles to survive, then the end was written. Because the Syrian army is fucked. And its troop must know it.

How important was the I.E.D. in all of this? It started with terrain denial, no-go roads and rising government casualties, which led to units spending more time on bases, which in turn allowed the uprising to grow and, to a degree, organize itself more fully. And then the direction shifted, to what is visible now. In a few quick months, the opposition went from being in a desperate military position to fighting in the center of Damascus while the world set an Assad-is-ousted countdown clock. That clock may or may not be premature; it remains to be seen whether the government will consolidate and stand after the events of this week. But even if it firms up, the army’s problem will still be the same. It cannot operate in a tactically meaningful way in much of its own country, it has no local Sunni proxy to take its place and it has no time to find one, the more so in a climate of Sunni anger. It can fight and it can kill; sure. But it cannot operate in a way that it gets stronger, and its foes get weaker. With I.E.D’s. in large-scale use against an army ill-equipped to counter them, the dynamic works the opposite way. And where can the army go? Considered in this war’s social and demographic context, with the Alawite-dominated military deployed in the midst of an armed and now bomb-savvy, Sunni-dominated population that loathes its government and has suffered terribly under its hand, there will almost certainly be a time, not too far off, when you will be referring to the Syrian army in the past tense.

Bomb by bomb it lost momentum. And now, bomb by bomb and stand-off by stand-off, until it breaks and ancient forms of battlefield ugliness overtake its units, the Syrian army’s most likely end seems clear. Timing? You won’t get me to guess. But the rest, as they say, is details – bloody as they will be.


The Syrian opposition, emplacing a makeshift bomb, the weapon that helped push the Assad forces back. Rodrigo Abd, Associated Press. This spring.


Under rules by which my five children keep me in line, every time I use foul language I am required to put $1 in the Mason jar in the kitchen that holds the family ice-cream fund. Fishing through pockets now, rounding up loose change. (As one of my sons might say: Bank.)

 *Sound familiar?