Will Assad triumph in Syria?

The Syrian opposition is now effectively in the hands of extreme Islamist groups with a very different agenda from that of the secular-led Free Syrian Army.

Syrian army forces loyal to Bashar Assad 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/George Ourfalian)
Syrian army forces loyal to Bashar Assad 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/George Ourfalian)
In November, when details of the peace conference on the Syrian civil war – known as Geneva 2 – were finally agreed upon, and the event was scheduled for January 22, 2014, the outcome of the conflict was in the balance.  A month later, it seems as though Bashar Assad’s régime – supported as it is by Russia, Iran and Iraq, and augmented by substantial fighting forces from Hezbollah and the Iranian al-Quds Brigades – is gaining the upper hand militarily, while its opposition has fallen into disarray.  As a result, the projected peace conference could be a non-starter or, if it does take place, could easily degenerate into a travesty.
Back in April 2011, as small-scale popular protests developed into a nationwide rebellion, it seemed that the rule of President Bashar Assad was doomed. Protesters were demanding his resignation and an end to Ba'ath Party rule, which began in 1963.  Soon the opposition began to organize political and military wings, in anticipation of a long uprising against the Assad regime. By December 2012 the US, Turkey, the Gulf states, France and Britain had recognized the main opposition, the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution (NCSR), as the "sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people" – a clear sign that they believed the Assad government was doomed.  However, the NCSR never coalesced into a coherent or effective body, nor did it ever achieve sufficient authority to persuade Western powers to provide it with the sort of military support it needed to overcome the Syrian army. This was mainly because of the rise in its ranks of a radical Islamist militia allied to al-Qaida – the Al-Nusra front. No Western power was minded to ally itself with the world’s number one terrorist organization. The result was a marked cooling of international support for the National Coalition, and this, in turn, allowed the Assad government and its supporting fighting units to launch a counter-offensive. In August 2013, this onslaught included the use of chemical weapons indiscriminately against both rebel fighters and any civilians who chanced to get in the way.
Far from suffering the immediate and crushing retaliation repeatedly threatened by US President Barack Obama if Assad should dare to use chemical agents against his own people, Assad emerged from the incident relatively unscathed, if not positively strengthened. His Russian ally took charge of the situation.  Perceiving the reluctance of Western powers and especially the US, to use military force of any kind, Russia adopted the role of honest broker in fostering a diplomatic solution.  Assad was persuaded to destroy his chemical stockpile and its means of manufacture, and to submit to international inspection.
Since then Assad’s forces, strengthened by units from Hezbollah, the Iranian al Quds Brigades and Iraqi Sh’ite fighters, have seized the military initiative.  To date, they can claim four major war gains. The highway from Damascus to Syria’s two port towns, Latakia and Tartus, is now open by way of the town of Homs; the last remaining rebel supply routes from Lebanon are cut off; the Damascus-Beirut highway is now wholly under Hezbollah control; and on December 8, after a two-week siege, they retook Nabuk in the Qalamoun Mountains – the last step before loosening the rebels’ two-year grip on the eastern suburbs of Damascus.
In brief, a stage has been reached where the rebels no longer seem to pose a military threat to Assad’s hold on power.  A consequence has been a crumbling of morale among the opposition forces. A number of rebel commanders have been defecting and handing sectors of eastern Damascus over to Assad’s forces, declaring they are no longer part of the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council (the SMC), the military wing of the National Coalition. Defectors include leaders of the new Islamic Front, an alliance of seven non-al-Qaida jihadist groups which came together in November.
As a consequence, the more moderate elements of the opposition are engaged in a struggle on several fronts – against Assad and against a variety of hardline groupings, nominally their allies, including al-Qaida. The most extreme is the group proclaiming the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which has succeeded in taking over army posts in the north belonging to the Free Syrian Army. But ISIS is not having it all its own way because other extremist jihadist groups, many with their own agendas, have been using Syria as a convenient battleground on which to wage their intra-Islamic struggles. 
This fracturing of the anti-Assad nexus has political implications.  It means that attempts by the Western powers to forge a “moderate” military alliance that would oppose both Assad on the one hand, and his jihadist opponents including al-Qaida on the other, are no longer practical. It also throws into confusion the question of who will be sitting round the peace conference table in Geneva on January 22 – assuming that event indeed takes place.
The Syrian opposition is now effectively in the hands of extreme Islamist groups with a very different agenda from that of the secular-led Free Syrian Army. So even if moderate Syrian opposition leaders attend the Geneva talks, they would be in no position to negotiate a deal with President Bashar al-Assad on behalf of the rebels. The jihadist fanatics who now dominate the Syrian opposition have no interest in doing any kind of deal with the Assad regime. Many have a different agenda. They are intent on establishing an extremist Sunni caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq –  which is why Iraq is again facing an insurgent bloodbath, as al-Qaida reclaims large swathes of territory in the west and north of the country.
As for the Islamic Front, six out of the seven groups that form the new alliance have explicitly rejected Geneva 2, and some have threatened to try for treason any moderate rebels who attend. Assad, especially if he retains military superiority, may well be present, sitting alongside his Russian ally and possibly Iran, if Russia succeeds in gaining it a seat at the table. Together, this triumvirate would at the very least, insist on Assad retaining the Syrian presidency. 
So, if it does take place, Geneva 2 will resemble nothing so much as a performance of “Hamlet” without the prince – the absent prince being the effective elements in the opposition that, despite their recent reverses, remain intent on ousting Assad from power.  In short, it is impossible to imagine anything productive coming out of the so-called peace conference. The almost certain outcome is that the war will continue, and that Assad might yet emerge the victor.
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com).