Analysts say the road ahead for the opposition seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad is not promising.
Despite some rare military gains by Syria’s fractious rebel forces in recent days, analysts say the road ahead for the opposition seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad is not promising. Without serious weaponry and backing from the West, they believe, the rebels will not be able to oust the entrenched Syrian leader. But they add that Assad likely will not regain control of the entire country.
Events this time last year led many, including the Obama administration, to predict otherwise. After the July 2012 bombing attack that killed Syria’s security chiefs, including Assad’s brother-in-law, Assaf Shawkat, the White House and other Western governments believed the regime would have a short shelf-life. However, the deadly blast may have been precisely the jolt needed to persuade Iran to “take urgent action to prevent its longstanding ally from biting the dust,” according to the Daily Telegraph’s defense writer Con Coughlin.
Regime gains, rebel setbacks
Now the military picture in Syria has dramatically changed. The rebels suffered two major setbacks during a widespread government offensive in central Syria this summer. In June, Assad forces regained control over the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border with the aid of Iranian-backed fighters from Lebanon’s militant Shia organization Hezbollah. Qusair is on a critical supply route and considered essential to protecting Hezbollah’s power base in Lebanon.
Recently, the Syrian army took control of a district in city of Homs, dubbed the rebel “capital” for long having been an opposition stronghold. Last week, however, rebels sent a wave of rockets slamming into regime strongholds in the central city, Syria’s third largest, striking an arms depot and sending an enormous fireball into the air. Opposition forces also took an ammunition depot north of Damascus from Assad troops, and seized a cache of anti-tank missiles and rockets to strengthen their firepower after a string of defeats
Activists also said the rebels secured a major air base north of Aleppo on Tuesday after months of fighting. But Syrian state TV denied that the Mannagh helicopter base had fully fallen into rebel hands. If the activists’ report proved true, Assad forces would be deprived of one of their main posts near the border with Turkey. The area is largely under opposition control.
Homs lies on the main north-south highway that connects most of Syria’s main cities. Some believe if the strategic city completely falls to Assad troops, it could allow the regime to consolidate its positions in the center and south and link the site of the state apparatus in Damascus to its Alawite-majority support base on the Mediterranean coast.
That’s why rebels are currently battling government forces in the coastal province of Latakia. They have taken control of four villages in what is otherwise a stronghold of pro-Assad Syrians near the Mediterranean Sea. The area is populated by Alawites, members of the sect to which Assad’s family belongs.
“What the regime and Hezbollah are trying to do is secure that corridor that links the capital to the coast. Qusair was a major step and securing the outskirts of Homs is of greater strategic importance for that alliance,” said Paul Salem, who directs the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
“If they can get both (cities) it would be a sustainable situation for the regime for an indefinite period for months or even years, even if they can’t get Aleppo, if they can secure that core,” he added.
Julien Barnes-Dacey, Syria analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said opposition weaknesses such as the “lack of unity and resources and its inability to present a vision which appeals to the greater swathe of Syrian society” are taking their toll. “There is a real concern now that more and more Syrians are looking to Assad as the devil they prefer,” he said.
Barnes-Dacey said the narrow middle section of Syrian society fears both the country’s “complete destruction” as well as the “opposition whom they view as extremist and unable to govern in an orderly way.”
But he also points out that a large proportion of the Syrian population has been brutalized by the regime and will not accept Assad’s rule. “So he will never be able to establish that broader legitimacy,” Barnes-Dacey warned. “The levels of polarization run deep. This points to scenarios where you see the breakup of the country.”
Both Barnes-Dacey and Salem believe both the Syrian opposition and the West mistakenly underestimated Assad’s military strength. Assad has a very capable domestic militia behind him that is learning how to effectively carry out strategic ground warfare, under the protection of the regime’s air superiority. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia have proved to be stalwart allies, providing sophisticated arms, experts and boots on the ground to the beleaguered leader.
The United States and its Western allies have not offered that same unflinching backing to the opposition. “These incremental increases in arms from the West do very little to dent Assad’s staying power,” said Barnes-Dacey.
“If you are looking to knock out Assad militarily, you are going to have to go in big. The same, if you can militarily bring him to the negotiating table. There is no appetite whatsoever for (such arms supplies) in the U.S. and I don’t see that happening,” he added.
The U.S., which supports the opposition, and Russia, which backs the Assad regime, have been trying to convene a conference in Geneva to get both sides to reach a political settlement to end the crisis and establish a transitional governing body vested with full executive powers.
Outgunned by Assad’s forces, the rebels have sought the kind of weapons that could tip the balance of power in the two-and-a-half-year violent civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people — the largest such number in the so-called Arab Spring revolutions that broke out in 2011. Nearly two million Syrians have fled the war-torn country and four million are internally displaced.
But Syria’s rebels are a fractious, ragtag composite ranging from secular nationalist fighters to al-Qaida-linked jihadists seeking to impose severe forms of Islamic law on Syrian regions under their control. The U.S. and Western powers have held back sending game-changing weapons, fearing they will wind up in the hands of militant fighters over whom they have no control.
Barnes-Dacey called the latter group, believed to be mainly foreign Arab and other Muslim fighters, “opportunists” playing a “spoiler” role, who will not be easily dislodged from the conflict. Infighting among the ranks has also weakened the opposition’s campaign against Assad’s rule.
“There are elements that won’t accept any political transition whatsoever. If Assad is finally dislodged, then you have the battle for Syria,” he said.
Assad could remain — but couldn’t rule the entire country
But he and other analysts now do not believe that Assad will be unseated nor will Iranian influence be diminished in the region.
“Assad and the Iranians are capable of maintaining a very strong influence in Syria for a very long time due to their use of popular militias and territorial control. I don’t think there is any prospect whatsoever of wholly pushing Assad and the Iranians from the Levant,” Barnes-Dacey said.
“However, the Assad regime is not going to win back the whole country,” added Carnegie’s Salem. He predicted that the “opposition will not be able to beat the regime for the foreseeable future” and that the crisis could continue for “many years.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations is investigating both the regime and the rebels for human rights violations considered to be war crimes. It said abuses by troops loyal to Assad have been systematic and widespread, while rebels are stepping up routine killings of captured soldiers and suspected regime informers.
Barnes-Dacey and others blame the Obama administration for sending mixed signals and failing to chart a coherent way forward for the opposition.
“The U.S. and President Obama were unwilling to forcefully push an approach that would prioritize the humanitarian necessity of stopping the bloodshed,” he said. Washington failed to invest the military and political resources needed to make a strategic political victory feasible. The resulting mixed messages, he said, both empowered Assad and his backers, but also the rebels who believed the West stood behind them and would eventually provide the needed military support.
The analyst also said the opposition’s unwillingness to accept that there can be “no absolute victory” has been its “biggest failure” to date.
“So long as the opposition keeps banging the drums of ‘We will win completely,’ that is only contributing to the further entrenchment of conflict in the country,” Barnes-Dacey said.