Is the Glass Half Full for Syria’s Assad?

He may no longer control huge swathes of Syrian territory, but his forces appear nowhere near collapse. Over the past 18 months, at least, the dictator has beaten the odds

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Manu Brabo / AP

A Syrian man cries next to the body of his friend near Dar El Shifa hospital in Aleppo, Syria, Oct. 4, 2012.

Winter is coming, and with it the near certainty that the lot of millions of suffering Syrians will get substantially worse. Some 335,000 and counting find themselves in refugee camps in neighboring Turkey and Jordan, the lucky among them in pre-fabricated structures provided in some of the Turkish camps, the vast majority huddled in tents. But for millions more back home, the brutal ravages of an 18-month civil war that has claimed as many as 30,000 lives must now be endured under the growing privations of a siege economy imposed by war and sanctions, the winter chill and shortages of everything from fuel to medicines and foodstuffs raising the specter of disease and hunger along with the threat of instant death from rockets and bombs.

But one group of Syrians may be greeting the oncoming winter with a grim sense of satisfaction: As bad as things may be, President Bashar al-Assad and his entourage — and those who are willing to fight and die to keep in power — know that for them, things could be a whole lot worse. Sure, the regime has lost control of vast swathes of territory that appear to be intractably under the control of insurgents. But if the rebels are able to control much of the countryside, they remain hopelessly outgunned in the head-to-head fight for the major cities, with no sign of any heavy weapons deliveries from their allies abroad, much less a NATO cavalry riding to the rescue as it had done in Libya. The rebels continue to be plagued by divisions, and Western powers are increasingly anxious over the influence of salafist extremists within the armed insurgency.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

The expected collapse of Assad’s armed forces has failed to materialize, and defections to the rebel side have slowed to a trickle. Instead of signaling an imminent denouement, the incremental gains and losses of each side along the shifting front-lines suggests a strategic stalemate, in which neither side is capable of delivering the other a knockout blow. Against that backdrop, the latest developments on Syria’s borders with Turkey and Jordan in recent days and weeks appear to be symptoms of that stalemate, rather than signs of imminent outside intervention. “If this continues we will respond with greater force,” said Turkey’s military chief, General Necdet Özel, Wednesday, during a visit to the Turkish border town of Akçakale, which had suffered six days of artillery fire from Syria. Turkey had responded in kind to the shelling that began last week, and on Wednesday it intercepted and inspected (and later released, after confiscating communication equipment) a Syria-bound civilian airliner on suspicion of carrying weapons from Moscow.

But for all Turkey’s bluster — and NATO’s obligatory vows “to protect and defend Turkey if necessary” — the fact that the provocative shelling from the Syrian side continued for six days suggests that Assad is calling the bluff of his old friend, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A majority of the Turkish public opposes sending troops into Syria; the war has already imposed an economic burden on Turkey through the cutoff of trade and the refugee crisis, and it has also boosted the fortunes of the separatist PKK insurgency among Turkey’s Kurds as well as raising tensions with its Alawite and Alevi minorities. The Western powers without whose active involvement most analysts concur Turkey might find its capabilities stretched by a solo Syria intervention show no appetite for that option.

MORE: Who Will the Tribes Back in Syria’s Civil War?

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7 comments
mladenm
mladenm

Rebels never did anything to distance themselves from Islamic extremist. For example, they never proclaimed universal equality in front of law - bedrock of any modern society , not just liberal democracy. However, Sharia does not recognize it. Neither they kept demanding free and fair elections - they wanted power on silver platter. But with half Syrian population who are either non-Sunni or secular Sunni, rebels never had critical mass of people to overrun the government. So thy moved war to Sunni neighbourhoods of some towns turning them into war zone, while government supporters are fairly safe.

But main problem here is survival of Arab Secularism. If it is overrun, and Salafist set their terms to whole Middle East, Europe will erect Iron curtain around it. There were enough religious and ideological wars in Europe in last 500 years. In last 50 years own extremists were quieted, but now passions are rising again. Taking any Muslim hard-liners would only worsen thing. And if all Muslim become hard-liners, gates of Europe (and probably USA) will remind closed to them until they eventually adopt liberal democracy. In 10 or 200 years, it's up to them. So, to prevent new cold war (one which technologically inferior Muslim world would lose) it is critical to prevent Salafist takeover in Syria.

malsaba
malsaba

 Nonsense.

mladenm
mladenm

Malsaba, and that is easier to you then face the facts? Here is your homework:

1) Why is Islamic radicalism on rise?

2) Natural response is rise of anti-Muslim sentiments (also on rise)

3) Secular forces are  on losing side of all so called "Arab Spring" regime changes

4) What happens when there are no more suit-and-tie Muslim coming to West? Ask anybody in Europe, do they want more folks in abaya and shalvar kameez around, or they would rather send those back home?

Jabli Izvesti
Jabli Izvesti

The Benghazi attack,for example,has blown up in the face of the U.S in its jihad against the secular dictators in preference to the Islamist ones.Instances like this have naturally boosted the morale of the Assad forces.The so-called world community has also seen the other side of the Arab Spring.No wonder it is not  so eager for a regime change in Damascus.One Morsi is enough for now.

Donna C. Ruiz
Donna C. Ruiz

@facebook-100003096480500:disqus a Syria-bound civilian airliner on suspicion of carrying weapons from Moscow. $85 an hour! Seriously I don't know why more people haven't tried this, I work two shifts, 2 hours in the day and 2 in the evening…And whats awesome is Im working from home so I get more time with my kids. Heres where I went,..NDOQESB.Tk

drorbenami
drorbenami

wow tony baloney.....30,000 people in 18 months......that's like "15 operations cast lead" in a row, isn't it ?

also, did TIME'S crack bureau chief in Jerusalem "Tim the Jerk" ever discover the identity of that israeli soldier who wrote the graffitti on the wall in Gaza ???

okay, granted, while it is true that graffitti is not as bad as throwing people off of roofs or torturing children like they are now doing in syria, nevertheless, the palestinians are very sensitive people and this israeli war criminal should be hunted down and punished...

R3I Consulting
R3I Consulting

Interesting, thank you.  I suspect the key point is in the final paragraph: when the international community gives peace more priority than Regime change.  Hitherto, it seems the West has had a fixation with removing Assad, however illogical or counter-productive to Western national interests that may be.