Assad Barely Hangs on
By Nayyer Ali MD

Syria is now in its fourth year of civil war, and Assad remains in control of Damascus and most of the major Syrian cities. The count r ys ide, except for the coastal region, is now basically in rebel hands. Two years ago I predicted that Assad would slowly lose the civil war and Syria could turn into a failed state of Lebanese style war-lordism if the rebels could not unify.

Well predictions are hard, especially about the future, and I missed some elements that changed the calculations of Assadís chances. Foremost was how much assistance he would get from Iran and Russia. Both countries have provided vast quantities of military aid, and Iran has sent some of its top military leaders to assist the Syrian government. Meanwhile, the Shia Lebanese militia Hezbollah has intervened directly to help out Assad, sending combat units into Syria to take on the rebels. With this help, Assad has managed to hold onto his core areas, namely Damascus and the string of cities to the north and then over the mountains to the coastal region, which is made up of mostly Alawites who are from his sect.

The rebels have also been hampered by a variety of factors. The biggest one is the lack of unity, with the rebel forces divided into multiple small independent groups fighting locally but no overall strategy or control. Secondly, in the last year much of Eastern Syria was overrun by a new group known to many as ISIS, which also grabbed control of much of the Sunni regions of Iraq. ISIS is an incredibly violent and extremist movement, known for torturing and beheading its opponents, and even random innocent civilians who are not Sunni Muslims. They have killed a number of Western hostages and burned alive a captured Jordanian pilot. ISIS is seen as the enemy by the US, so doing anything that helps them is anathema. The US finally intervened directly in Syria, but it was in the context of launching airstrikes against ISIS positions, not against Assadís forces.

The other major factor holding back the rebels is a lack of training and heavy weapons to defeat Assadís tanks and air force. The rebels make do with light weapons and RPGís. But they lack the heavy weapons that would allow them to confront large remaining units of the Syrian army. As a result of these two trends, Assad has managed to hold on to power much longer than I expected. But Assad has not been able to go on the attack and retake Syria. His long-term disadvantage remains hanging over his head. He simply lacks the manpower to deploy enough soldiers to fight this war on several fronts. His military is mostly drawn from the Alawi, Sunnis will not fight for his rule, and the other religious minorities are just trying to get out of Syria or avoid being killed. Assadís foreign support also has limits. The sharp decline in oil prices in the last six months reduces the resources Iran and Russia have available to help Assad. Meanwhile, there is a limit to how many casualties Hezbollah will take on behalf of Assad. They do not wish to lose their combat power fighting a losing battle for Assadís regime.

On the rebel side there seems to be a trend for the main Islamist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other mainstream rebel groups to work together. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have also decided to cooperate more on arming the rebels, and the Saudis have provided the rebels large numbers of powerful TOW anti-tank missiles, which have been used to deadly effect this spring. On March 28 the key northern city of Idlib was completely taken by the rebels. Four weeks later they captured the nearby city of Jisr al-Shughour, which puts them in a position to move on to the coast and the extremely important port of Latakia. Meanwhile, the regime and rebels remain deadlocked in Syriaís second city of Aleppo near the Turkish border. The regime relies on a very narrow path to stay connected with Aleppo and resupply its forces there. If that route is cut, the regime will lose Aleppo, and that would be a crippling blow.

Syria has become an unholy mess. Millions are refugees and more than a hundred thousand have died. But for now life can be deceptively normal in Damascus itself, with civilian airplanes still flying in and out. Assad has lasted in power much longer than I expected, but he is still losing and has no credible path to victory, either through force or negotiations. The rebels will turn their attention to securing Aleppo and menacing Latakia next, and losses there will doom the regime.

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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