A diplomatic breakthrough brokered by his Russian allies is doing little for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the battlefield.
As U.S. and Russian officials meet in Geneva to discuss how to dismantle Assad’s chemical arsenal, it’s business as usual in the Arab country, with government forces bombing areas around Damascus. Rebels including Islamist militants have killed at least 64 of Assad’s troops in six provinces nationwide this week, while more than 70 civilians lost their lives, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
While Assad said last month the civil war can only be resolved by force, more than two years of fighting has left his army too weak to win the war, according to security analysts in Europe and the Middle East. With opponents divided and unable to take regime strongholds, the two sides are left deadlocked in one of the deadliest conflicts in the region’s history.
“I don’t see a real strategic shift,” said James Fallon, a Middle East analyst at Control Risks in Dubai. “Both sides know the end game is negotiations. This could take years, but a clean military victory is not a realistic option for either.”
Assad has lost authority over swathes of Syria, including parts of the northern province of Aleppo.
While his army controls coastal areas and the capital, it’s still fighting for dominance in suburbs of Damascus and needed the help of Iranian-backed Lebanon-based group Hezbollah to retake a strategic town near the border of Lebanon in May.
“It’s back to square one,” said Matt Qvortrup, a senior researcher at the Centre for International Security and Resilience at Cranfield University in the U.K. “The chances of Assad winning haven’t improved and it’s going to be status quo. The compromised position is a draw.”
Battered by defections and casualties, Assad’s forces fell to about half of their national strength of 220,000 by this time last year, according to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
In justifying military action, the U.S. accused Assad of killing more than 1,400 people near Damascus using chemical weapons on Aug. 21, a charge the Syrian government has denied. When Obama’s request for Congress approval to strike faced defeat, he seized on Russia’s proposal.
The move left the Western-backed Free Syrian Army lamenting a lost opportunity to turn the tide in the war.
Fighters from the rebel group, financed and armed in part by Gulf Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, had taken positions to exploit a U.S. strike, Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, a member of the Free Syrian Army’s high command, said on Sept. 2. This week, he said he was “dismayed” at the Russian plan and that it would come “at the expense of Syrian blood.”
The Central Intelligence Agency has begun delivering weapons to the rebels, ending months of delay in military aid promised by Obama, the Washington Post reported yesterday, citing unidentified U.S. and rebel officials.
Yet whatever military success Assad’s enemies had has been overshadowed by their disunity and influence of al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants, a factor that had contributed to the absence of Western intervention in a conflict the United Nations estimates has killed more than 100,000 people.
“Assad leads the most cohesive and most powerful single military faction in the country,” said Fallon at Control Risks. “He no longer leads, in any sense, a national army.”
Assad’s government still feels threatened by the possibility of a U.S. strike even after Obama’s decision, Ali Haidar, Syria’s minister for national reconciliation, said in a telephone interview on Sept. 11.
“We consider that the atmosphere of war persists until we go to a comprehensive political process that will solve the Syrian crisis fully,” he said.
The lingering tension pushed Brent crude up yesterday for a second day. Brent for October settlement gained as much as 96 cents to $112.46 a barrel in London before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov started talks on Syria in Geneva.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that for his country’s proposal to work, the U.S. and its supporters must renounce the use of force against Assad.
Before any inspection could begin, Assad would likely have to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their production and possession and requires the destruction of a country’s stockpile on an agreed-upon schedule.
“When you look at the Russian proposal, it’s impossible to implement,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. Assad’s forces could still attempt to “move toward key areas and they could try and solidify gains.”
Government troops are trying to retake Maaloula, an ancient Christian-dominated village 35 miles (65 kilometers) northeast of Damascus, where rebels led by groups affiliated to al-Qaeda have advanced. Pro-Assad television stations, including Lebanon’s OTV, aired footage showing government forces in the village, while the BBC reported fighting was continuing.
Assad’s priorities ultimately will be limited to trying to regain full control over Damascus suburbs and to assert his authority in the coastal areas and along the Lebanese border, analysts say. Russia’s only naval base outside the Soviet Union is in Tartus, the Syrian port still controlled by Assad.
“Retaking what’s been lost is very difficult,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of Cornerstone Global Associates, a London-based consultant on political and economic risk. Assad will use any territorial gains to improve his negotiating position for negotiations, he said.
Attempts to broker a non-military resolution to the conflict have so far faltered. The Syrian National Coalition, the main political opposition group, has rejected any negotiated settlement that keeps Assad as part of the country’s future. The president, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades, has said regime change can only come through the ballot box.
The U.S. strike “would have tipped the balance,” Nuseibeh said. The stalemate now “increases the chance that of Assad being part of the political solution.”