By Manish Rai:
President Bashar Al-Assad is starting to look like he will survive the uprising, even in the estimation of some of his staunchest opponents. It is a reality that almost everyone agrees to that the Syrian regime has revealed an extraordinary ability to survive. Despite the blows it has sustained in the initial phases of the conflict it has not collapsed and has even succeeded in preserving the cohesion of its civilian government systems, military forces, and security systems. More important, President Assad is in control of the regions that appear to be critical for a functional Syrian state entity: the capital city of Damascus, other major urban centres (Aleppo, Homs, and Hama), the Syrian-Lebanese border region, and the coastal region. Even once staunch critics of President Assad like the United States, European Union, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are reassessing their positions regarding the future of Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Damascus. In the beginning of the Syrian uprising, it appeared Assad’s rule was unravelling and it was only a matter of time before he met a similar fate to Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh and Qaddafi. But all these assumption have now proved to be totally wrong. Let’s look at the factors which have contributed in strengthening the position of President Assad.
Support of Allies: Without doubt, the most decisive factor in turning of the tide in the Syrian conflict was the immense support of allies of the regime i.e. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The expanded interventions of Russia and Iran into the Syrian Civil War have shifted the trajectory of the conflict in favour of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia has overwhelmingly used its air campaign as a tool to weaken the mainstream armed opposition battling against the regime. Iran reinforced the regime with thousands of fighters from its foreign proxies as well as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Moreover Hezbollah provided its elite fighters to supplement the regime forces. Hezbollah complemented the Assad regime through light infantry, reconnaissance and sniper fire. It also provided additional training and combat manpower at a time when pro-regime forces are stretched from years of fighting.
Strategic deployment: Since the initial phases of the conflict President Assad generated reliable forces by selectively deploying units, raising pro-regime militias, and pursuing a clear and bold strategy in major urban areas using indirect fire. The Syrian regime hedged against defections by deploying only the most loyal one-third of the Syrian Army around its core territories and major urban centres.
Support of minorities: President Assad enjoy firm support of all the minorities in the country. Christians, Alawites, Druze and Ismaelites support the regime because they consider that only the regime can provide security to the minorities in the country.
Control over Damascus: The elimination of the opposition threat to the Syrian capital of Damascus formed the core component of the Assad regime’s military strategy. Durable control over the formal seat of government and the home of several million Syrian citizens provides the Syrian regime with a solid claim to domestic and international legitimacy.
Air power: The Syrian regime’s dedicated air force has become the most significant instrument in all its major military campaigns against the rebels. Aside from logistics and reconnaissance, the Syrian Air Force has been used primarily to strafe and bomb rebel held areas. Declared “inoperational” by most foreign observers at the start of Syrian uprising in 2011, the Syrian Arab Air Force not only remains operational but has severely damaged the rebels.
Control over population: Control over the majority of the surviving Syrian population provides opportunity to tap manpower reserves to aid the regime’s fight and also restricts civilians from joining the Syrian opposition. The regime also benefits from enduring economic activity that generally no longer exists in rebel-held areas.
Division among the rebels: Rebel infighting has plagued the Syrian opposition since the start of the uprising against the regime in 2011. Division among the rebels was mainly because of local rivalries as well as ideological differences between jihadists and more nationalist groups. This obviously benefited the regime.
Manipulated rise of Islamic State: Assad strategically responded to the Islamic State invasion of Syria. From the beginning, when IS took control of oil production facilities, the regime has continued to buy from these same facilities, literally feeding IS funding. Furthermore, Assad believes that IS doesn’t pose a direct threat to Damascus. So he focuses his military forces on rebel groups rather than on IS, essentially allowing the organization to conquer some areas in the north of Syria, recruit sympathizers, and terrorize the rest of the population. But the President also does not ignore the imminent threat of IS. Just days after Russia began its airstrikes, he warned during an Iranian TV interview that failure in Syria’s campaign against IS would “Destroy the Middle East”. This combination of inaction against IS and public statements about the dangers it poses only serves to increase levels of concern, both in Syria and in the international community, demonizing IS and elevating Assad as the more reasonable leader.
Assad has won the most critical battles of the entire war. But there is something else that is also clear: that the war itself will not end. Indeed, the Syrian conflict post-Aleppo will not only continue, but could evolve in myriad ways that even the most knowledgeable Syria analyst will find difficult to predict. The opposition is still heavily armed. So we’ll still see that for quite a while. The big question is how quickly we get to that guerrilla-style warfare and where the regime is going to go next.
Manish Rai is a columnist for the Middle-East and Af-Pak regions and Editor of the geo-political news agency Views Around. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org