A number of reports have been published in recent days suggesting the tide of the war in Syria may finally have turned decisively against the Assad regime.
The reports cite a series of successes the Syrian rebels have achieved in recent weeks, and suggest the dictator and his allies will have difficulty reversing these setbacks. So is the game really finally up for the bloodstained regime of the Assads? A close examination of the evidence suggests that President Bashar Assad’s eulogizers have once again spoken too soon.
To understand why, let’s first of all look at the nature of the undoubted successes the various rebel coalitions have achieved.
The Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) rebel coalition has conquered significant ground in northern Syria from regime forces in recent weeks. Idlib City, the second provincial capital to be prised from Assad’s grasp, fell on March 29. The alliance has since scored additional victories, taking the pivotal town of Jisr al-Shughour close to the Syrian-Turkish border, and in its latest advance, capturing a regime base at Qarmid.
Jaish al-Fatah, whose two main component groups are Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahral al-Sham, now appears ready to begin attacks on the regime stronghold of Latakia Province and on the Hama area.
Further south, it has been a similarly poor few weeks for the regime. The much-trumpeted February offensive of the Syrian army, together with Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, intended to drive the rebels from the area south of Damascus, rapidly ran aground in the winter snow. The Southern Front rebel coalition and Jabhat al-Nusra went on to score a series of achievements in subsequent weeks. The town of Bosra al-Sham, a historic site close to the border with Jordan, fell on March 25; then the last regime-controlled border crossing between Syria and Jordan, at Naseeb, also fell to the rebels and Sunni jihadists.
This is the list of rebel successes to date; it is certainly considerable. Just a few months ago, many analysts were pronouncing the side of the rebels to be in its death throes. Their inability to unite, or to stem the influence of Sunni jihadists and corrupt warlords in their ranks, seemed to presage their failure.
The regime’s woes have been compounded by the appearance of fissure in its ranks. The firing of two security chiefs – Rafiq Shehadeh of Military Intelligence, and Rustom Ghazaleh of Political Security (who has since died) – adds to its travails.
So what has changed? The rebels have gone through a kind of process of natural selection in which larger units have devoured smaller ones, leading to greater cohesion. The rapprochement of Saudi Arabia with Turkey appears to have enabled more coherent organization, support and supply to the rebels in the north.
In the south, meanwhile, a similar process is occurring with regard to Western and Sunni support for the Southern Front. The latter, unlike Jaish al-Fatah, is not dominated by Salafi Islamists.
Nevertheless, it would be premature to pronounce the regime’s imminent demise.
The regime’s main and oft-noted problem throughout the war has been lack of manpower. The Assad regime has throughout been able to depend on the more or less firm support of only a very small section of the Syrian population – namely the Alawite minority, at 12 percent of the populace. In recent months, there have been signs that even the support of Assad’s own sectarian community is growing frayed.
This core defect in Assad’s position has been apparent throughout, but the regime has been able to deal with it in a number of ways.
Firstly, unlike the rebellion, the regime possesses strong and committed allies. Most importantly, Iran has been willing to mobilize its regional proxies and its own assets in order to offset Assad’s shortage of manpower. Hence, the prominent place of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters on the Syrian battlefield – along with Iraqi Shi’ite militiamen, local Alawite irregulars and Shi’ite volunteers from as far afield as Afghanistan.
There is no reason to believe that the well of potential volunteers from outside Syria has dried up.
As fewer Syrians enlist, it is likely that as in the past, their places will be filled by foreigners. To be sure, this means that the Assad side is today a mixed bag of mainly Shi’ite volunteers assembled by Tehran, rather than the army of a coherent state regime. But this does not make its defeat more likely.
Indeed, given the greater determination and cohesion the Iranians have shown throughout the region, when compared with the confused and flailing Sunnis and the largely absent West, the opposite might well be the case.
Secondly, since mid-2012, the Assad regime has sought to offset its shortage in numbers by reducing the area of territory it seeks to hold. This was the logic behind its abandonment of much of northern Syria in July 2012. Assad understands that he must continue to hold Damascus and its environs, the western coastal area and the area linking the two in order to survive.
In addition, it is a cardinal interest for him to hold Homs and Hama provinces; none of these are as yet under threat.
Until this point, the despot has suffered setbacks in areas whose loss poses no threat to his control of the area of Syria over which he rules. Iran, which is as much the protagonist of the regime’s war as is Bashar himself, does not require the totality of Syria to preserve its vital interests in the country. It needs a contiguous area of land linking pro-Iranian Iraq with pro-Iranian (Hezbollah-dominated) Lebanon.
If and when this interest comes under threat, we will discover just how much fight the regime has left in it.
Lastly, if the nuclear negotiations currently under way produce a deal to Iran’s liking on June 30, this is likely to improve the fortunes of the Assads. That is because the Islamic Republic will demand immediate sanctions relief. This will free up vast sums to flow into Iranian coffers – as much as $50 billion, according to one estimate.
It may be assumed that these funds will be made available for a friend in need. Given the fecklessness of the Western approach to the negotiations and the desire to avoid conflict with Iran, it is quite possible that such a deal will emerge.
In closing, the Assad/Iran/Hezbollah side in the Syrian civil war has not yet begun to be tested in the areas where it must prevail to survive. Thus far, it has suffered only a number of limited setbacks; it has certainly morphed from a centralized regime war effort into the kind of proxy militia arrangement in which the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps specializes.
But this is not an argument for its vulnerability. Reports of its (imminent) demise have been much exaggerated.
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