Is Assad winning in Syria?

Backed by Iran and Hezbollah, the Syrian regime is clawing back areas lost to the rebels; it is thus likely that the Assad regime will be around for some time to come; US, West still prefer to stay directly out of conflict.

Assad forces 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Assad forces 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
Hezbollah 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 reports).
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.”
The 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 jihadi groups.
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.
The Assad regime has benefited on every level from the support of a determined international coalition, which has stood behind the dictator since the outset of the rebellion.
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 weapons.
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 emerging.
Assad, then, isn’t winning – despite the new bullishness of his supporters. But right now, he isn’t losing either.