The imminent demise of the regime of Bashar Assad has been announced on numerous
occasions over the last two years of civil war in Syria. But the regime has held
on. Despite some advances by rebels in the south of the country in the early
months of 2013, Assad shows no signs of cracking.
Indeed, in the last few
weeks, the momentum of the fighting has shifted somewhat. Regime forces have
clawed back areas of recent rebel advance. The government side, evidently under
Iranian tutelage, has showed an impressive and unexpected ability to adapt
itself to the changing demands of the war.
As long ago as the summer of
2012, the government side demonstrated that it was able to adjust creatively, if
ruthlessly, to events. When it became apparent that determined attempts by the
regime army to crush the revolt in the northern Syrian countryside were proving
fruitless, Assad’s forces carried out a strategic withdrawal. In effect, the
regime ceded large swathes of northern and eastern Syria to the Arab rebels and
to Kurdish separatists.
Assad held on to the cities of the north; the
western coastal area; the area around the capital, Damascus; and the highways
between all these.
The dictator and his Iranian patrons then settled down
to a process of attrition – with the twin goals of preserving their own area of
rule, and rendering ungovernable the area under rebel control. This latter goal
was attempted through the use of air power, artillery and latterly ballistic
missiles against civilian targets. It has been successful insofar as the rebels
have proven to be notably unable to prevent their area of control from turning
into a chaotic zone, consisting of the rival fiefdoms of various local
commanders and alliances.
These were the contours of the bloody stalemate
into which Syria settled for the latter half of 2012. In the first months of the
year, the rebels made a concerted effort to break this stalemate. Aided by
deliveries of new and improved weapons systems paid for by the Saudis and
brought in via Jordan, rebels in the south made significant gains. The town of
Dael on the road to Damascus from the southern border fell at the end of March.
Much of rural Dera’a province, the cradle of the revolt, fell to rebel forces.
Further north, the town of Raqqa fell to Islamist rebels in early March – the
first provincial capital to fall.
At this point, it looked like the
battle for Damascus was about to begin.
But over the course of April, the
regime has hit back.
Damascus remains a fearsome prospect for any rebel
force wishing to enter it. The regime has assembled a huge array of artillery
and missile systems on Mount Qassioun, a strategically vital area of high ground
over the city.
The regime has also entrenched its most loyal and able
fighters, including the Republican Guards, the 4th Armored Division, elements of
the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Alawite paramilitaries trained by Iran in the
city. Regime forces last week recaptured Otaiba, a town east of Damascus, which
formed a crucial link for rebels seeking to bring weaponry and ammunition from
the Jordanian border to the eastern suburbs of the capital.
fighters operating on behalf of the regime in the eastern part of the country
and backed by regime air power have driven the rebels back in the Qusayr area in
central Homs province. In so doing, they have ensured that the vital Damascus-
Homs highway remains open (though with heavy losses, according to
As of now, the rebel Farouq Brigade has prevented Hezbollah’s
entry into Qusayr City, and the fighting remains intense. But the regime’s
rallying has taken place not only on the battlefields.
Assad has from the
outset possessed a clear narrative of the conflict, according to which his
regime is facing attack from an alliance of jihadi “terrorists.”
irony of this version of events is rich, given that the dictatorship in the
not-at-all-distant past made ample use of Sunni jihadi clients, employing them
to destabilize neighboring Iraq – where the regime allowed a steady stream of
foreign jihadis to use Damascus airport as an entry point to the region, on
their way to take part in the Sunni insurgency against the US – and Lebanon,
where the regime sponsored the Fatah al-Islam group as a tool to destabilize the
country in 2007. Nevertheless, no one has ever suspected Assad of having an
excessive sense of shame.
Meanwhile, the bombings at the Boston Marathon
have refocused Western attention on the threat of Sunni jihadi terrorism. The
West’s preference to refrain from directly supporting the rebellion left a
vacuum, which has been largely filled by Islamist fighters and transnational
So the regime’s predictions now constitute a kind of
self-fulfilling prophecy. It is an account of events that has some resonance
beyond circles naturally sympathetic to Assad. The result is that morale among
supporters of the regime has improved markedly in recent weeks.
regime has benefited on every level from the support of a determined
international coalition, which has stood behind the dictator since the outset of
Russia, Iran, its proxy Hezbollah and the Maliki
government in Iraq are all playing a central role. The latest indications are
that the US and the West still prefer to stay directly out of it, despite the
obvious crossing of notional “red lines” regarding the use of chemical
It is thus likely that the Assad regime will be around for some
time to come.
This regime may be a study in vileness from a moral point
of view, but Assad and his allies over the last two years have shown what can be
achieved when a clear strategic goal is wedded to a willingness to use the most
ruthless and murderous of means. Only a comparable level of cohesion and
commitment from the rebellion and its backers is likely to prove sufficient to
finally terminate Assad’s rule.
This shows no signs of
Assad, then, isn’t winning – despite the new bullishness of his
supporters. But right now, he isn’t losing either.