Is Assad Winning?

Jerusalem Post, 3/5

The imminent demise of the Assad regime 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 somewhat shifted. 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 Damascus area, 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 in so far as the rebels have proved notably unable to avoid their area of control 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 2013, 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 form 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. This was the first provincial capital to fall.

At this point, it looked like the battle for Damascus was about to begin. But in 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 and the 4th Armored Division, and elements of the Lebanese Hizballah and the Alawi paramilitaries trained by Iran, in the city.

Regime forces last week recaptured Otaiba, a town east of Damascus which formed a vital link for rebels seeking to bring weaponry and ammunition from the Jordanian border to the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

Hizballah fighters operating on behalf of the regime in the western 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 loss, according to reports.) As of now, the rebel Farouq Brigade has prevented Hizballah’s entry into Qusayr City. 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 Bashar’s 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 the Assads of having an excessive sense of shame.

The bombings at the Boston marathon have re-focused western attention on the threat of Sunni jihadi terrorism. The west’s preference for staying out of direct support for the rebellion left a vacuum which has been largely filled by Islamist fighters and trans-national 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 benefitted 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 Hizballah and the Maliki government in Iraq are all playing a vital role. The latest indications are that the US and the west still prefer to stay out, despite the obvious crossing of notional ‘red lines’ regarding the use of chemical weapons. So it is 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. So Assad isn’t winning, despite the new bullishness of his supporters. But right now, he isn’t losing either.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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2 Responses to Is Assad Winning?

  1. Pingback: Is Assad Winning?

  2. Yonatan Karmi says:

    The Syrian civil war raises a whole stack of questions. How many Arab civilian lives have to be lost or in danger to justify Western intervention ? Clearly 100,000 is not enough. How many Arabs can be killed by chemical weapons before the West does anything ? Clearly 50 is not enough. It’s a difficult moral issue, because why should any, say, American soldier have to die, because these barbarian brutes are slaughtering each other.

    Maybe the best policy is indeed to arm some of the rebels to create an equilibrium in the civil war, so that it drags on for a long time thereby weakening all the combatant parties, including Iran and Hizballah. Not good for innocent civilians, but as things stand at the moment, if either the Sunnis or the Alawites get the upper hand they’ll inflict terrible bloodshed on the losing side.

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