Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whose government was last year described as close to collapse by groups ranging from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the armed opposition, may remain in power for years to come.
“The regime is still in place, strong and not going anywhere,” Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview. Widespread predictions of his demise reflected an “unwillingness to assess the regime’s strength, wishful thinking, a desire for a swift end, and a failure to recognize this is a civil war.”
With government forces advancing on key opposition strongholds, Syria’s opposition leader George Sabra appealed yesterday for rebels to concentrate on the key central city of Al-Qusair and aid 50,000 people trapped inside. In recent weeks, the opposition has lost Otaibah to the east of Damascus after a 37-day battle, the southern town of Sanamein and Aziza near Aleppo in the north.
While the fighting strength of Syria’s army has been reduced to a quarter of its notional 220,000 manpower, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Assad regime has been bolstered by irregular forces including Hezbollah fighters from neighboring Lebanon and Iranian-trained militias.
Syrian government forces entered Al-Qusair this week as part of an offensive to retake the strategic town in Homs province, central Syria. The aim is to secure the highway linking Damascus with the coastal mountain region that forms the Alawite heartland, the regime’s support-base, and cut the rebel resupply lines from Lebanon. The battle is seen as a key test for both sides.
“The loss of Al-Qusair and potential loss of control of the Damascus-Homs-Tartus highway would be by far the biggest setback yet for the rebels in the conflict,” said David Hartwell, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Jane’s, in a May 21 note. An Assad victory would give the regime renewed confidence and enable it to fight for “other territory -- especially in the north and east -- lost to what looks like an increasingly fragile opposition fighting force.”
While Assad has lost many of the oil fields that formerly provided about a quarter of all government revenue, his foreign supporters also supply monetary assistance, putting the Syrian government in a stronger financial position than might be expected, Barnes-Dacey said.
Analysts including Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, or BND, which previously forecast rebel victory, now say the regime is regaining ground and may retake Syria’s southern districts by the year’s end, according to Der Spiegel magazine yesterday. While Assad ultimately can’t defeat the Syrian rebels, he’s able to halt their advances, the magazine cited BND chief Gerhard Schindler as briefing selected lawmakers.
“If we’re expecting a quick resolution, it would take a palace coup or an assassination or a bomb,” Shashank Joshi, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said in an interview.
Last year, international leaders had talked about the Syrian government’s demise. In December, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said it was “approaching collapse” while Russia’s deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Assad was increasingly losing control and territory. Abdel Basset Sayda of the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, said the regime was on “its last legs” in June.
Assad has “made a few gains in the last few days but this has gone up and down like a seesaw,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Amman yesterday, as he described growing support for the rebels. The Syrian leader is “miscalculating” if he thinks the advances will be decisive, Kerry said.
Kerry was in Jordan for a meeting of 11 countries including the U.S., France, the U.K., Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The group denounced the involvement of Hezbollah and Iranian forces in the Syrian conflict, called for their withdrawal and pledged increased support to the opposition.
“Assad’s forces have proven resilient,” said Joshua Landis, who runs the Middle East program at the University of Oklahoma. “The countries and militias that back Assad up have shown greater commitment to him than the many Western and Sunni nations of the Middle East have shown toward any of the militias that are fighting him.”
If military firepower were the issue, Assad’s forces would have swiftly won the two-year conflict. The country has an extensive arsenal of mainly Russian-supplied hardware including almost 5,000 main battle tanks, more than 3,000 artillery pieces, 325 fighter and ground attack aircraft and more than 100 helicopters. While some equipment has been destroyed in the fighting, much of it remains, the IISS says.
Yet rebels have taken large swathes of territory in many rural areas including the northern districts of Aleppo and Idlib near Turkey, some outlying areas of Damascus and areas in the south near Jordan. Government forces hold the center of the capital, the road from there to the Jordanian border and those running southeast to Iraq, the IISS says in its Military Balance 2013. More than 100,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in 2011, Kerry said in Amman.
“The regime had been waiting and planning for this day for 40 years, they have been expecting Sunnis to rise up against them,” said Barnes-Dacey, a former journalist who worked in Damascus. Even so, the level of violence used to quash the uprising is such that it’s hard to imagine Assad’s administration regrouping and establishing full control, the analyst said.
“The fighting is transitioning from a government against an insurgency to a civil war in which the government is just one actor,” he said. “The most likely outcome is a partition of Syria.”