Recent military setbacks have not weakened President Bashar al-Assad as much as some observers believe, a leading Syria analyst says.
Over the past several weeks, Assad’s forces lost Idlib to the opposition – the second provincial capital to fall to the opposition, after Raqqa two years ago – and ISIS fighters seized the Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus. In the south, meanwhile, the government is also gradually losing ground to moderate rebels.
Faced with manpower shortages, conflict fatigue, financial and military dependence on foreign allies like Iran and jihadi control over large parts of the north and south, it will be very difficult for Assad to regain control of the country militarily.
On the other hand, the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria has bolstered Assad’s narrative that he is engaged in a “war against terrorism” and reinforced the stark reality that moderate rebels are not a dominant force on the ground.
“The main beneficiaries of the failure of moderate rebels groups to organize inside Syria are the Islamist groups and to a lesser extent the regime,” Ayham Kamel, the London-based director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Eurasia Group, told Syria Deeply.
While Assad will be forced to confront difficulties in several parts of the country and is unlikely to achieve a comprehensive victory in Syria in the next few years, he is not as weak as some have suggested, Kamel said.
“I don’t think a comprehensive victory is Assad’s objective. Assad wants to control a large part of Syria that will make him the most coherent authority in the country, and therefore with time able to win the war.”
“A military stalemate does not favor everyone to the same degree – it always favors the incumbents. In this case, it gives a slight edge to Assad but not a decisive victory.”
Kamel spoke to Syria Deeply about the state of Syria’s opposition, the strength of the regime and the implications of a military stalemate.
Syria Deeply: Assad lost Idlib to the opposition last week – the second provincial capital to fall to the opposition, after Raqqa two years ago. ISIS is also creeping into regime-held territory in the west and last week seized parts of the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus. Is Assad worse off militarily than he was a year ago?
Kamel: On the military front, the Assad regime will be forced to confront difficulties across a set of geographies because the opposition isn’t going anywhere. Idlib matters, but it’s not a strategic area in Syria. A much more consequential event would be the collapse of Aleppo – it would have weakened the Assad regime in a much more significant way.
ISIS’ offensive on Yarmouk creates logistical restraints and problems for the regime, but it isn’t a critical issue for Assad. The areas around Damascus don’t matter a lot in terms of the balance between the regime and the opposition. Damascus is so important for the regime that it’s willing to commit more troops and more assets to achieve a more decisive victory there. We will likely see a military operation with Palestinian factions assuming de facto control over the security of the camp.
The regime has clear areas where it is much more interested in establishing dominant control rather than skirmishes. Skirmishes are intended to weaken the opposition, which Assad has been able to do over a wide geography, but he cannot, given the restraints he has, control the country militarily as a whole.
It’s very difficult to see a comprehensive victory emerge for the Assad regime in the next two to three years. Given that there are open borders, both between Syria-Jordan and Syria-Turkey, where foreign patrons are continuing to provide the opposition with support, it will be very difficult for Assad to win this war.
The opposition, while weak to a certain extent, remains resilient. It’s not giving up its fight against the Assad regime and its strongest asset is also its weakness – its division into many small groups that are difficult for the regime to defeat as a whole.
On a regional level, Saudi Arabia Qatar and Turkey will broaden their support for rebel groups to undermine Assad. The new leadership in Riyadh is much more determined to constrain the Assad regime and his Shia allies. This important shift in Sunni policy is a direct consequence of the Rise of Riyadh’s Anxiety after the expansion of Houthi forces in Yemen. As result, the likely balance of power in Syria will prevent Assad from consolidating or emerging victorious.
Syria Deeply: How critical is the regime’s manpower shortage?
Kamel: There is a manpower issue if you define Assad’s aim as a complete victory, which I don’t think is achievable for the regime, and I don’t think a comprehensive victory is Assad’s objective. I think he wants to control a large part of Syria that will make him the most coherent authority in the country, and therefore with time able to win the war.
There is a certain extent to which replenishing the troops on the regime side becomes more difficult over time, but I don’t think it will be a critical issue that will shape the balance in favor of the opposition. Mainly because the regime supporters don’t see the opposition as a viable alternative and because, at a popular level, Assad isn’t weaker than he was two years ago and still has popular support. This is mostly due to the fact that large parts of the opposition have been infiltrated by the jihadists/extremists and because the moderates are weaker and therefore less viable in the eyes of many Syrians.
Syria Deeply: What is the future for moderate opposition, who are currently caught in between jihadists and the Syrian regime, inside Syria?
Kamel: The main beneficiaries of recent developments inside Syria are the Islamist groups, irrespective of their extremist ideologies. The Nusra Front in Syria and ISIS between Iraq and Syria are now the best organized and structured rebels groups in the country, and they have squeezed the opposition out.
In the first 18 months of the conflict, the rebel groups on the ground were more moderate and dominant. The failure of the opposition to organize and create a coherent structure in Syria has made them much less effective and created room for ISIS and Nusra to grow.
It’s become very clear that the exiled moderate opposition, who have a view that is much more secular towards establishing a system in Syria, are almost irrelevant – they have no forces on the ground, no one is speaking to them in an active way, and the west and regional powers aren’t approaching them as real players in the Syrian conflict. They weren’t even invited to the last Arab Summit. There has clearly been a very clear change in direction since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.
The entire army that fought in Idlib with Nusra was comprised of conservative Islamists. The Fatah army in the north isn’t exactly the legion of moderates that we envisioned in the beginning of the revolution. Nusra has made it very clear that they don’t want representatives from the Syrian National Council to come back. Their project doesn’t legitimize the Syrian opposition – they want to sideline them in any way they can. Jabhat al-Nusra will likely set up something quasi-Islamist in terms of a political or governance system in the areas they control.
Also, it would have been very difficult for Nusra to operate freely in the opposition’s southern strongholds without coordination or support from external regional powers. These are areas close to the Jordanian border, where there is logistical support to the rebel groups, and it’s very difficult to see Jabhat al-Nusra play a prominent role in military operations that isn’t a function of at least some acceptance by regional powers in the Middle East.
The regime has benefited from the opposition’s failure to organize. While the regime is uncomfortable with how effective Nusra and ISIS are militarily, it is most likely to tolerate them over the short term because this reinforces the regime’s narrative since the beginning of the conflict – the idea that there wasn’t a revolution and that the current conflict was entirely an Islamist plot to destroy Syria.
Syria Deeply: It seems unlikely that any side in Syria will win the war militarily. Is there any chance that a military stalemate will spur some kind of peace negotiation or settlement? What do you expect to see in the months to come?
Kamel: A big part of this depends on regional dynamics. If we reach a nuclear agreement between Iran and the West, it will strengthen Assad’s resolve and his troops’ morale, and he will have more financial transfers from Iran. I don’t think the Iranians are about to give up on Assad.
The Yemen conflict has also made Syria much more important in the regional play. We are clearly headed towards the point of time where the Iranians are going to provide Assad with more support to balance against the recent waves in terms of the southern offensive and the northern one in Idlib. There could be a confrontation in the next four to six months that pushes rebels in certain locations, but I wouldn’t read it as an end to the conflict or a win for Assad.
Locally, there is movement towards fatigue. We are at the beginning phase of fatigue. Conflict fatigue is increasingly part of the dialogue, even when it comes to the population. When it came to local ceasefire in a lot of localities, there was strong support from local civilians on both sides – of the opposition and the regime.