How Much Longer for Assad?
By Nayyer Ali MD
It has been over two years since the first demonstrations took place against the dictatorship of Bashar Assad, the son of the late dictator Hafez Assad who had ruled Syria from 1970 to 2002. The Arab Spring had peacefully swept aside the President of Tunisia and was bringing Mubarak in Egypt to brink of resignation. Many thought that Syria would not be immune to the winds of change.
But Syria was fundamentally different from Egypt. Egypt was a homogeneous Sunni society with a Coptic Christian minority, but that minority was not in power and had nothing to gain by keeping Mubarak in place. Syria in contrast was ruled by the Assad family, which came from the Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shiism. The Alawi made up only 10% of Syria, while the Sunnis were 70%. Christians, Kurds, and Shias accounted for the balance of Syria’s ethnic mosaic. The Assad regime held power by allowing certain elements of these other groups to benefit economically as long as they supported the regime. There were many urban Sunni businessmen with close ties to the regime who did not want to see it fall.
However, among the average Sunni in the countryside or in provincial towns, the desire to get rid of the dictatorship was strong. It began in Deraa, a small town south of Damascus. But extensive non-violent protests were met with extreme brutality with hundreds and then thousands of Syrians being killed by the regime in 2011 to put down the unrest.
By early 2012 it became clear that Assad had decided to stay in power no matter what, and to use as much force as needed to do so. In return, many Sunnis fell away from the regime, prominent Sunnis defected to the opposition, and slowly an armed rebellion began to take shape. While Syria benefited from active support from Iran and Russia, the rebels began to receive small amounts of weapons and support from the Saudis and Turks and Qataris. The US and EU though refused to arm the rebels and kept their distance from the whole dispute, unsure of who to support, though unable to get much done at the UN due to Russian and Chinese support for Assad in the Security Council.
Over the last 18 months though, the rebels have slowly gained ground against the Assad regime. They have gained weapons by capturing Syrian army bases, and much of the Syrian army is so unreliable Assad confines them to their bases. Before the revolt, Syria had an army of 250,000 or so. At this point, most observers believe that Assad has about 65,000 loyal and active troops left, mostly Alawi soldiers. These forces have given up the north and east of the country and are concentrated in the Alawi coastal region and in the south around Damascus and the other major cities. The countryside is no longer in government hands.
The rebels lack any real unity. While some groups on paper have meetings in Turkey or the Gulf, they have no real authority over the fighters on the ground. While plenty of soothing words are spoken to international media about the non-sectarian nature of a new Syria, there has been enough sectarian violence to scare Syria’s Christians and Shia and Alawi about what a rebel victory will mean. Many of them are very fearful that an extreme Islamist element will dominate a future Syria without Assad, and it is that fear that Assad is using to hold these groups to his regime.
The rebels have no real heavy weapons. They lack artillery, transport, airpower, rockets, antitank missiles, tanks, and heavy machine guns. They make do with assault rifles and RPG’s. But they have something that Assad is running out of, and that is manpower. Assad is losing 5000 soldiers per month in dead and wounded. In a few more months his army will come close to collapse, which will happen long before every soldier is actually a casualty. Once the average soldier comes to see defeat as inevitable his will to fight will wither away, unless he is convinced that he and his family will be killed if the rebels win. Convincing the regime soldiers that an equitable future awaits is the quickest way to destroy Assad. This is the key challenge of the rebels, who are divided into a multitude of local militias with their own independent commanders. Assad’s regime will crumble in the next few months, a year at the most. But what comes after is the real question. Can a united, just, democratic Syria be created? Or will we see years of Lebanese style war-lordism and civil conflict?