Syrian Paradox: The Regime Gets Stronger, Even as It Loses Its Grip

As the regime's ability to govern Syria declines, it is being transformed into a powerful militia that has little incentive to compromise

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SYRIAN ARAB NEWS AGENCY / EPA

Syrian army soldiers carry Syrian flags and pictures of President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Aug. 1, 2012, at a ceremony marking the 67th Army Day

News reports typically characterize the Syrian rebellion as being 16 or 17 months old. It is one of those descriptions delivered en passant while relating the news of the day: the battle for Aleppo grinds on into its sixth day threatening a massive humanitarian crisis; new video shows rebels executing unarmed prisoners; President Bashar Assad urges his troops on through written messages but declines to make public appearances, and so on. But the International Crisis Group (ICG), a respected organization of analysts, mediators and former diplomats, on Wednesday issued a report urging opponents of the Assad regime, both Syrian and international, to pay closer attention to the implications of that 17-month time span.

Not only has the Assad regime survived an unprecedented assault, the ICG argues, but it also is no longer the Assad regime of February 2011 — and the rebellion challenging it also may have morphed into something quite different from the uprising that began last year. As a result, stakeholders looking to end the crisis are in urgent need of some thinking that goes beyond speculating whether Assad will go the way of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, or any other autocrat felled during the past year’s Arab rebellion. Syria’s trajectory will be very different. Says the ICG report:

Perhaps the most significant and least appreciated is what, over time, has become of the regime. The one that existed at the outset of the conflict almost certainly could not have survived the spectacular killing of top officials in the heart of its traditional stronghold; street combat in Damascus, Aleppo and a string of other towns; the loss of important border crossings with Turkey and Iraq; all amid near-total economic devastation and diplomatic opprobrium. That, a year and a half later, its new incarnation not only withstood those blows but vigorously counterpunched sends a message worthy of reflection.

(MORE: When Syria’s Dust Settles, Will Assad Be Replaced by a ‘Junta in a Box’?)

Assad’s regime, it warns, is morphing into something less like a government and more akin to factional militia locked into an increasingly brutal fight for its collective survival, relying on an Alawite community that sees a rebel triumph as nothing less than a mortal threat.

[The regime] is mutating in ways that make it impervious to political and military setbacks, indifferent to pressure and unable to negotiate. Opposition gains terrify Alawites, who stand more firmly by the regime’s side. Defections solidify the ranks of those who remain loyal. Territorial losses can be dismissed for the sake of concentrating on “useful” geographic areas. Sanctions give rise to an economy of violence wherein pillaging, looting and smuggling ensure self-sufficiency and over which punitive measures have virtually no bearing. That the regime has been weakened is incontrovertible. But it has been weakened in ways that strengthen its staying power.

(MORE: 5 Ways Syria Can Get Even Worse)

The rebel campaign in Aleppo was, by some rebel accounts, an attempt to create a “safe haven” that would encompass Syria’s largest city, and its commercial hub, and stretch all the way to the Turkish border. That would not only allow armaments to be delivered more freely from Turkey but would also create a beachhead on which rebels could proclaim an alternative political authority that could then be recognized by foreign powers as Syria’s legitimate government. Clearly, foreign backers were hoping for that outcome — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week even predicted the emergence, soon, of a “safe haven” for anti-Assad forces in Syria — which is modeled loosely on Libya. There, it was after rebels had taken control of the eastern city of Benghazi and proclaimed an alternative government, that NATO intervened ostensibly to protect them from being overrun but then waged an offensive air campaign to take down Gaddafi. The emergence of a rebel-controlled zone in Syria would certainly have raised pressure on Western governments to provide direct military support to defend it.

So far, that outcome isn’t looking likely. Not only are Syria’s rebel military and political groupings far more diverse and divided than their Libyan counterparts were, but the city of Aleppo itself appears to be divided between supporters and opponents of the rebellion. Large sections of the civilian population, particularly middle-class and wealthier residents, and also its Christian community, are hostile to the presence of rebel fighters in their city, even if they might be politically opposed to Assad.

If, as is expected, the superior armaments of the regime’s forces see them prevail in the current battle for Aleppo, that would reinforce a sense of strategic stalemate: the regime is unable to bludgeon the rebellion into submission, and it has lost control of large swaths of rural Syria to an insurgency capable of fighting on a number of fronts but that is unable to muster a knockout blow.

(PHOTOS: As Syria Grieves: Photographs by Nicole Tung)

The evolution of the protest movement that began early in 2011 into a full-blown civil war involving actors ranging from the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda to Russia and Iran, has probably done more to strengthen the regime’s core and its determination to fight to the end than it has done to create a soft-landing. To the extent that the Alawites believe the triumph of the rebellion consigns them to a grim fate, they will fight to prevent that — with the tacit backing of many in other minorities and sections of society that feel threatened by the prospect of a victory by the hard men, many of them Islamists, who fight under the banner of the loose-knit Free Syrian Army. Video imagery touted by the rebels of the summary execution of a group of Aleppo men accused of abuses on behalf of the regime doesn’t do much to ease such fears. And the sectarian undertow that grows stronger as the fight drags on works to Assad’s advantage. The rebellion may have forced the regime to relinquish control of large swaths of territory, even the sovereign control of some of Syria’s border crossings, but in doing so it has, if anything, reinforced the determination of Assad’s core supporters to fight on.

If the regime has, indeed, rendered itself immune to traditional levers of statecraft, the push to pressure Russia and China to back new economic punishments for the regime will have limited impact. And seeking to prevail militarily almost guarantees a protracted fight:

There can be nothing more to expect from a regime that, by its very nature — never much of an institutionalised state, no longer genuinely a political entity — has ceased being in a position to compromise, respond to pressure or inducement or offer a viable solution. Which means that the traditional international panoply of actions, from public blandishments to condemnation, from threats to sanctions, is not about to work.

Preventing Syria’s descent into a generational civil war may now depend on the ability of the Syrian opposition to change the dynamic that keeps Alawites fighting for Assad as if their lives depended on it. A convincing repositioning of the rebellion on inclusive terms will be tough, especially given the bitterness of the fight so far and the divisions among the various parties. But absent the emergence of an alternative that coffers the Alawites and other regime supporters a place in the post-Assad sun, the morbid spectacle of urban combat in Syria could drag on for months, even years.

PHOTOS: The Victims of Assad

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Yeshuratnam
Yeshuratnam

Assad has become stronger because Obama did not intervene on time  when the rebels  were in full authority in the first phase of the rebellion. Cameron and Sarkozy intervened on time which led to the fall of Gadaffi.

Musawi Melake
Musawi Melake

The ICG is not a respected organization, as claimed here, but an outfit to sell the policies of the West in a disguised form and manner. If if suits the Western thinking, then this club will issue statements praising  actual war-criminals and genocidal regimes' actions. Sometime they go even further in Image-building for these entities and individuals, and flatly reject the universal law of democratic rights of the affected and the weak, just to uphold the outlandish-views of the White-House and State-Dept.

Certainly the Assad-regime should win this round of war, and after sometime, a purely home-grown opposition(without foreign sponsors and trainers ) should oust the same evil regime. The sad thing is that the innocent and the ignorant in Syria are being used as cannon-fodder by the West with the help of a few individuals stationed in Western capitals.

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

1 Politics and

economics always stay on course if we allow this. Here we have a perfect

anatomy in modern time. We trespass, violate all the rules and state we are

here for peace. Russia slams the West for using "blackmail" over a

new UN Security Council resolution on Syria and ridiculed the idea it could

convince President Bashar al-Assad to step down. The question comes to mind.

Who called us, why we are here, is this like the WMD case. Do we still want to

see the bloodshed all over the Middle East? No. Then is it not time for us to

look at the economy and raise this so all then benefit.2  Now to USA As new J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson

courts the cool, elusive city shopper, one town is playing the role of an angry

ex. "J.C. Penney, here again you slap us in the face," declared

Antonio Lopez, mayor pro tem of San Fernando, Calif., outside his city's shuttered outlet.

"This is very unacceptable from you." On Saturday, the day the San

Fernando store closed, residents showed up to protest once more. After J.C.

Penney announced the bad news a

month ago, locals tried rallies, petitions and concerts to no avail. The store,

with its geometric facade and retro neon sign, had been serving shoppers since

1953 in downtown San Fernando, a city of 24,000 in Southern California's San

Fernando Valley. It is one of two J.C. Penney stores -- the other is in

Scottsbluff, Neb. -- to close this year. Elsewhere, J.C. Penney is garnering

more attention for the debut of its "shops" concept this week. On

Wednesday, the company opened branded Levi's, Arizona Jeans and i Jeans by

Buffalo spaces within 700 of its stores. If all goes according to plan, J.C.

Penney will eventually recruit 100 brands to open such mini-boutiques,

transforming cluttered department stores into modern "main streets"

with myriad shopping experiences. The company will also eliminate cash registers, arming staff with iPads

and other mobile devices to check out customers. But J.C. Penney is

transforming only its best 700 stores. The remaining 400, mostly located in

small towns, will receive limited selections of new merchandise. Although the

company built its empire on small-town America, many of those stores are

becoming burdens as the company attempts to rebrand. Some loyal shoppers at

those locations are also frustrated by the edgier fashion and end of coupons, two

changes that Johnson has implemented since starting at J.C. Penney in November.

In the early months of the rebrand, sales at J.C. Penney stores open at least a

year declined 18.9 percent. We have to look for this now as these new IPADS

given to the employee may boost the sales and the CRM. I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

Sunnyalaska
Sunnyalaska

The second I read the word "regime" and such words in an article ... I stop reading.   I am done with the brainwashing vocabs. People around the world had enough wars and pain that are based on opinions  ... they are demanding facts and data driven info with no adjectives attached ... regardless to the writer's credibility and trustworthiness.  

Amjad of Arabia
Amjad of Arabia

No one was more "determined" than Hitler to  to keep fighting to the end. Boys and girls as young as 11 were drafted into Hitler Youth units. Didn't do him much good in the end. Bashar had every advantage a tin pot dictator could dream for, and yet he *still* couldn't subdue the country.

kyrifles
kyrifles

Guerrilla wars can take a while to win. The Soviets fought the Forest Brothers for over a decade. Morocco has fought the Polisario Front, off and on, for decades. Short of NATO intervention, Gaddafi would have annihilated the Libyan rebels. I don't understand the bravado of Sunnis around the world who support the Syrian rebels. Muhammad's raiders were generally a small fraction of the non-Muslims they conquered, and yet they prevailed. Over a thousand years later, the same can be said of the European armies that ruled the Middle East. Just because there are more Sunni Arabs in Syria doesn't mean they'll automatically win. Victory in war is a matter of superior firepower, organization, training *and* motivation. That is why the vast majority of rebellions fail.

drorbenami
drorbenami

hey tony baloney,

how you are able to amass so much information sitting at your dining romm table in brooklyn is absolutely amazing....

mladenm
mladenm

There is fatal flaw in your argument: there is common knowledge that rebels are dominated by Islamists so anybody who is not conservative Sunni certainly don't want to surrender to them. It's not just Alawites, but Chriostian, Druze, Kurds and even secular Sunni. All in all, probably morethen half Syrian population. They haven't fought so much outside of army but it seems they understand fight is inevitable is they want to avoid Salafist yoke. War plan would be to drive every rebel supporter east of road Aleppo - Damascus and probably out of artillery range around major urban centres.

Yes, I think Syria will break up unless deal could be made on free and fair elections *before* regime change (East European style). However, rebel paymasters fear democracy. If it works in Syria, they are next. As alternative, they push Islam or Chaos and since most Syrians don't want their version of Islam, they get Chaos. And West tries to protect their best weapons customers, namely GCC. Forced to choose between Arab democracy, and weapons sales, they chose profit and Syrians know it too.

polnick
polnick

Installing Sharia law throughout the Greater Middle-East will bring peace to the region. Its only structures will be religious councils appointed by the people; their job would be the strict enforcement of Sharia law.  The newly formed Islamic nations must be headless even if it would result in anarchy. Allah`s leadership must be searched for but only found in prayer.

moderate Guy
moderate Guy

"... Alawite community that sees a rebel triumph as nothing less than a mortal threat." Let's get something straight right from the beginning; rebel triumph IS a mortal threat for the Alawites, and Christians, and Kurds, unless the latter carve out a semi-independent territory by force of arms and keep the Sunni Islamist fascists at arms length.

BL Automation Automation
BL Automation Automation

Today it is quite clear (the meaning of the word terrorism) terrorism and any entity, group or country that is against American interests whatever they may be. The American dominance and so blatant that the terrorist until recently called that now employed by American rebels and becomes a force for liberation of Syria (Syria is clear that this counter to U.S. interests) and the child prodigy Israel. To me, terrorism and a distorted word (or parents more terrorist Israel) We and the Americans. The United States are not even there for the Syrian people would actually be a dream to kill everyone and dominate everything. United States will kick a lot, but its end as the greatest power there is no way it will end. What will an Iran with many nuclear weapons and that Brazil create shame in the face and start manufacturing them as fast as possible. To arrest the fall U.S. no people in this world except this. Brazil is mainly The anti-Americanism and world (so bloodthirsty Americans living in luxury and consuming the wealth of worldly close their eyes to this)

BL Automation Automation
BL Automation Automation

Today it is quite clear (the meaning of the word terrorism) terrorism and any entity, group or country that is against American interests whatever they may be.The American dominance and so blatant that the terrorist until recently called that now employed by American rebels and becomes a force for liberation of Syria (Syria is clear that this counter to U.S. interests) and the child prodigy Israel.To me, terrorism and a distorted word (or parents more terrorist Israel) We and the Americans.The United States are not even there for the Syrian people would actually be a dream to kill everyone and dominate everything.United States will kick a lot, but its end as the greatest power there is no way it will end.What will an Iran with many nuclear weapons and that Brazil create shame in the face and start manufacturing them as fast as possible.To arrest the fall U.S. no people in this world except this.Brazil is mainlyThe anti-Americanism and world (so bloodthirsty Americans living in luxury and consuming the wealth of worldly close their eyes to this)

Peter Yohanoun
Peter Yohanoun

Syria will NEVER fall! The syrian people is aware of this satanic conspiration against the country, and aware of the influx of non-syrian/al qaida rebels. 95% of the SYRIAN people wants doctor Bashar al Assad. hence, to overthrow our president, you will have to kill 10's of MILLIONS of our people first! LONG LIVE BASHAR AL ASSAD!!!! May JESUS BE WITH YOU!

Vibram Guy
Vibram Guy

You're an idiot, congratulations.

kampunghighlander
kampunghighlander

The Salafists fighting alongside the FSA are a tiny minority and will have no power in a future democratic Syria, as far Assad having any future in Syria that is over and the Alawites would do well to look for new political leaders.  As someone who is obviously Christian you and the other religious and ethnic minorities have a choice, embrace the rebellion and quickly bring about the fall of the regime and return to peace or side with the regime and drag this out longer than is necessary resulting in hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. 

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

Who sent Koffe Annan there? A man with suit cannot do what the youths can. I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA 

Mark Thomason
Mark Thomason

"an attempt to create a “safe haven” that would encompass Syria’s largest city, and its commercial hub, and stretch all the way to the Turkish border. That would not only allow armaments to be delivered more freely from Turkey but would also create a beachhead on which rebels could proclaim an alternative political authority that could then be recognized by foreign powers as Syria’s legitimate government. Clearly, foreign backers were hoping for that outcome — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week even predicted the emergence, soon"

And that is why Kofi Annan gave up.  The US has no interest in peace.  It is fighting to win.  It expects to install a government in Syria.

It may get rid of Assad, or may not, but it will not like the new government.  Neither will Israel like it.  Why am I so sure?  These guys have made a mess of every war they got us into for over a decade.  Predicting they'll mess it up again is pretty safe.

mladenm
mladenm

 First will create Islamist Middle East and then erect razor wire around it. Leaving Israel as lone guard with rifle on watchtower and Saudi Arabia as capo among prisoners. And in 20 years region will be economic basket case (not counting oil).

prestalex
prestalex

No one is mentioning what I fear the very most from this civil war in Syria; remember those weapons of mass destruction that Saddam supposedly had...which no one could find? According to several intelligence sources (Google for it), those weapons were shipped over to Syria for safe-keeping.

Regardless of the merit of those claims, Assad has enough of his own stockpiles to give us plenty of worry - worry that they will end up in the hands of "terrorists". This certainly adds a dimension of tension to this saga.

If only Assad would have listened and responded favorably to the legitimate political concerns way back at the beginning of this movement. On second thought, he is truly his father's son, considering that the estimate of casualties now stands at about 20K --- the same number estimated to have been slaughtered by his father.

Mark Thomason
Mark Thomason

"According to several intelligence sources (Google for it), those weapons were shipped over to Syria for safe-keeping."

Nonsense.  You can't sell another war for the same weapons that never existed in the first place.  

prestalex
prestalex

I am NOT trying to sell you anything, Mark - especially not another war. If pointing out information that may be of relevance to this situation is worthy of your attacking the messenger then go for it because scoring your points obviously means more to you than civility.

julis123
julis123

Syria is an enemy of the West.  It's not clear that the opposition forces will be any friendlier to the West. What interest do we have in intervening? Look at Egypt--it gets billions of dollars in aid from the US and look at the rampant anti-Americanism there.

Mark Thomason
Mark Thomason

It is not anti-American.  It is anti-Israeli.  Not the same thing, despite efforts of their Lobby here to make it so.  

julis123
julis123

 I guess you must have missed the part where the new Egyptian president called for the release of the terrorist who tried to blow up the twin towers or the howling shoe-throwing mobs that recently greeted Sec of state Clinton

mladenm
mladenm

 Yes, ideological brethren of those guys and new Egyptian government try to displace last secular Arab regime (in Syria) by force. BTW, they are supported by Saudi Arabia, not Iran. So, what was your argument? That USA is backing horse which is kicking and biting?

Carmen T. Reinhardt
Carmen T. Reinhardt

Assad has enough of his own stockpiles to give us plenty of worry - worry that they will end up in the hands of "terrorists". http://DiscoverMoreWays.blogsp...

Sunnyalaska
Sunnyalaska

The majority of Syrians support their government and president ... that what matters :)  It is time for the US to stop the bullying and hegemony foreign policies ... as these policies are obsolete with the BRICS leading the world today. Let us refocus on our country here in the US before we preach others how to do it .... bombing other countries has been making Americans very insecure !? Shipping our jobs to China is stopping our economic prosperity and destroying the true American values and spirit!  

TRINI SYRIAN
TRINI SYRIAN

Anyone who continues to interfere in our country and its politics, would see midnight in the day time..WE WILL CARRY THE CONFLICT BEYOND THE BORDERS EVEN TO REACH THOSE WHO INTERFERE FROM AMERICA AND THE WEST.I GUARANTEE THAT.KEEP COMMING

Discobug
Discobug

Once again Tony Karon excels in presenting facts about the Syrian conflict and not the propaganda BS that western governments like to throw at us.

In Syria three is now full civil war that will spill brutality far worst than the world ever witnessed

While more blood is being shed, we turn to US and it's EU stooges and ask the question, how much more blood you want to see before you push for a reconsilatery solution that brings both Assad government and Syrian opposition to the negotiation table?

In doing so we have to recognize that this will not end the conflict because there will still be the job left to excise the terrorist elements (al qaida and the like) that have entered Syria under the Jihad banner. Afganistan De jas voux anyone?!

omegafrontier
omegafrontier

 You gave the US and EU too much credit.  Like they can tell the rebels what to do.  Stop with your BS.  Your failure to recognize that this war is caused by primarily by Assad is just appalling. 

DeborahSmythe
DeborahSmythe

The al-Assad family has long used intimidation to control its subjects.  As shown here, the ruling class has long used a variety of methods of torture to ensure that its citizenry fall into line, an issue that is likely to remain intact unless there is regime change:

http://viableopposition.blogsp...

hardworker777
hardworker777

How interesting. This explains Panetta's almost rabid screams telling Bashar to "get the hell out" of Syria. His frustration is understandable. This is yet another American operation in the Middle East that has gone wrong. Maybe the Americans should just stop interfering. Oh wait. That ain't happening. 

mladenm
mladenm

 USA needs to protect weapons sales. Democratic Syria -> GCC Sheiks are next to go.