Assad’s Roll of the Dice: Is Winter Coming for the Syrian Rebellion?

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Aref Hretani / Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter smokes as he takes a break in Aleppo December 22, 2012.

President Bashar Assad knows his regime can’t win Syria’s civil war — his foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, admitted as much in an interview published last week by a sympathetic newspaper. But nor does he believe he’s about to lose what the U.N. last week branded an “overtly sectarian” civil war in Syria. Instead, the regime appears to still believe it can fight its opponents to a draw — al-Sharaa called for dialogue and spoke of a compromise solution, but the regime continues to believe it can set favorable terms for a negotiated outcome.  The secret weapon it hopes to use to halt the rebels’ recent momentum? In a word, winter.

First, in the literal sense: The onset of a season of bitter cold amid deprivation approaching starvation in some areas is already sapping civilian morale and spurring rising despair in rebel-held territory, and Sunday’s reports of an air strike on a bakery in a rebel held town affirms the impression that the regime may be systematically targeting bread supplies in those areas to deepen the humanitarian crisis.

“The greatest challenge facing the rebels is providing the basic necessities of life to Syrians living in areas no longer controlled by the state,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “That’s why the regime is trying its best to disrupt food supplies in rebel-held areas. It needs them to fail, even to starve while they’re living under rebel control. The regime can’t allow the rebels to establish a workable alternative that pays salaries and is able to provide for those in its domain in the way that the state currently serves as the key provider to many millions of Syrians.”

(MORE: Assad’s Cash Problem: Will Syria’s Dwindling Reserves Bring Down the Regime?)

But the regime is also hoping that Western fears of a metaphorical “Islamist Winter” (following on the “Arab Spring”), in which Assad is replaced by elements hostile to Western influence and to Syria’s minorities, will restrain the U.S. and its allies from throwing their full weight behind the rebels. The regime may be hoping that this fear also creates an impetus for Western powers and anxious neighbors such as Turkey and Jordan to press for a more rapid political solution rather than allow the conflict to persist — a scenario that would allow the regime and its base to salvage more than they would if militarily defeated.

Fred C. Hof, who was the State Department’s point man on Syria until September, warns that the jihadists and the regime actually share a preference turning Syria into a failed state if they can’t win — and that the two sides effectively reinforce one another as the conflict persists. “The more time the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has to implement its sectarian survival strategy, the more time extremists fighting him will have to gather strength,” Hof wrote in a recent commentary. “The regime and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front feed off one another; both want a sectarian fight and both would be content with a failed state if they cannot prevail.”

That scenario could prompt the “Friends of Syria” bloc of Western and Arab countries to press for a more rapid conclusion to the war — either by ramping up support to the rebels, as some advocate, or by pressing for a negotiated solution, or both.

(PHOTOSFrom The Front Lines of Syria)

The second winter of a rebellion that has claimed more than 40,000 lives and driven a half million refugees into neighboring countries, while a further 2 million are displaced within Syria’s borders, has made the ability to provide money, bread and shelter potentially as important as weaponry in determining the arc and outcome of the struggle. Opposition supporters speculate that Assad’s reserves are rapidly dwindling, and that if it becomes unable to finance its security forces, a collapse could come quickly.

Still, the regime continues to pay salaries to millions of Syrians who work for the state. And it appears to be betting that its military campaign can impose greater hardships on rebel-held territories, choking them of food and resources to sustain the civilian population through a harsh winter.  Reports from on the ground suggest declining morale and mounting anger at the rebels in areas they control, but whose residents they’re struggling to sustain.

“Exhausted by a protracted war, some of the people in the big cities who initially supported peaceful revolution are becoming embittered,” writes NATO Mideast researcher Jean-Loup Samaan. “They cannot identify with the current escalation and feel they have been turned into pawns on a regional chessboard pitting Assad against his enemies… Faced with food and energy shortages, continuing unemployment and no short-term prospects of improved living conditions, the Syrians are increasingly coming to demand nothing more than their safety — with or without Assad.”

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The U.N. has launched an emergency appeal for $1.5 billion in order to provide humanitarian relief to refugees and IDPs over the next six months, highlighting the acute food crisis they face amid widespread shortages of bread and flour. A New York Times dispatch from Aleppo portrays a city under conditions beginning to resemble those that might be familiar to survivors of the World War II sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad.

“As temperatures drop and the weakened government’s artillery thunders on, Aleppo is administered by no one and slipping into disaster. Front-line neighborhoods are rubble. Most of the city’s districts have had no electricity and little water for weeks. All of Aleppo suffers from shortages of oil, food, medicine, doctors and gas. “Diseases are spreading. Parks and courtyards are being defoliated for firewood, turning streets once lined with trees into avenues bordered by stumps. Months’ worth of trash is piled high, often beside bread lines where hundreds of people wait for a meager stack of loaves. “One of the Middle East’s beautiful and historic cities is being forced by scarcity and violence into a bitter new shape. Overlaying it all is a mix of fatigue and distrust, the sentiments of a population divided in multiple ways. “Aleppo’s citizens scavenge and seethe. And along with the sectarian passions of civil war, some residents express yearnings for starkly opposite visions of the future: either for a return of the relative stability of the Assad government or for the promises of Islamic rule.”

That scenario may be better news for the regime’s scorched-earth policy than it is for the rebels efforts to stand up an alternative administration in areas they’ve captured. As Hof noted, a regime forced to concede control over all of Syria in order to protect its narrow, sectarian interests would prefer to operate in a failed state.

(PHOTOS: The Syrian Civil War: Photographs by Alessio Romenzi)

The regime will also be encouraged by Western anxieties over the makeup of the rebellion. “The Muslim Brotherhood are ‘leading from behind’ in both the National Coalition that Western and Arab countries have recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and also in the military Joint Command established under its auspices,” Landis observes. “They’ve let other people take the formal leadership roles, but the Brotherhood appears to be the dominant presence in both groups.”

Israeli analyst Lt. Col. (ret) Jonathan D. Halevi at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, takes an even darker view. “While the U.S. and other Western countries have recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the sole and exclusive representative of the Syrian people,” he writes, “the rebel forces regard the new leadership as having been imposed on them, and are prepared at most to accept it as a temporary actor that can mobilize the international support needed to complete the endeavor of toppling the regime. In actuality, the dominant forces in Syria are the military frameworks that have waged the campaign against the regime since March 2011. The overwhelming majority, if not all, espouse an Islamist, jihadist, Salafist outlook.”

Al-Sharaa’s stressed that neither the regime nor the rebels could prevail militarily and that Syria’s future as a nation-state is now in play. “They can’t avoid the fact that they’ve lost half the country and that things aren’t getting better for them, they’re moving in the wrong direction,” says Landis. “There hasn’t been a monhth in last two years when the opposition hasn’t been getting stronger.”

(MORE: Syrian Opposition Boosted by U.S. Recognition, but Faces Growing Challenges)

Despite recent rebel gains, however, the military situation hasn’t yet reached any sort of decisive tipping point. Instead, the regime has been forced to contract its domain, ceding much of the countryside to rebel forces but maintaining its grip on the major cities — even one third of Aleppo, where the regime garrison is unlikely to survive in the medium term, remains in loyalist hands six months after the battle for the city began.

The regime may well have to eventually abandon Damascus, too, at some point — after first ensuring it’s reduced to rubble — and retreat to the Alawite heartland along the coast. Israeli analyst, Halevi predicts that if the regime’s chemical weapons are moved, it will be “to the Alawite enclave in the west of the country to serve as a deterrent to acts of revenge and a political card for ensuring the Alawite community’s status in a future Syrian order.”

But if the regime’s Plan B is a retreat to the Alawite heartland, it’s not yet feeling pressure to take the decision to leave Damascus. That suggests a dramatic escalation is likely early in the New Year, both in the capital but also in and around Latakia, the coastal port city that would be central to any planned Alawite retreat to a more defensible perimeter. Just over half that city’s residents are Sunni, and many are bracing for vicious “ethnic cleansing” in order to solidify Alawite control.

The ability of the regime to survive the rebel military onslaught and for Syrians living in opposition-controlled areas to survive the deprivations of winter under regime bombardment may well shape the country’s future. For them, the Arab spring can’t come soon enough.

MORE: Journalists at Risk: How an NBC Correspondent Emerged from Syrian Captivity


The government trying to hunger the population and the rebels doing their best to help? Check the news:
An estimated 12,000 people have spent two weeks blockaded in the Christian town of Rableh, Syria, near Homs in the south.
Experiencing a shortage of food and medical supplies, residents could not leave as rebel snipers were shooting at them. [..] For about two weeks Syrian rebels maintained blockade of the mostly-Christian town, refusing entry to food and medical supplies, according to the Aid to the Church in Need Catholic charity, which tried to deliver supplies to the city
The activist from Saraqib said he saw rebels force government soldiers from a milk factory, then destroy it, even though residents needed the milk and had good relations with the owner.

The rebels are a disorganized mix of groups waging a proxy war. Without foreign support they would have lost long ago. But they are completely incompetent when it comes to governing they areas they control. Due to infiltration of criminal elements this is only worsening. What doesn't help either is that those countries that are so eager to send arms to the rebels suddenly becomes stingy when bread is needed.

As for Mr. Hof: he is just trying to defend his responsibility for a murderous proxy war. 

Then the myth of the withdrawal to Latakia. In fact the rebels are close to Latakia and Qardaha and several Alawite villages in that region have been evacuated in the face of advancing rebels. It looks like Assad considers Aleppo and Damascus more important.


I'm voting for the gov't forces. This nation is about to become another backward hellhole, like what has happened to Egypt and Iran!!!!!


Top Russian diplomats said that Mr. Brahimi, perhaps trying to broker a
deal that would help ease out Mr. Assad, may visit Russia as soon as
this week. Russian officials have sought to distance themselves from Mr.
Assad in recent weeks as the nearly two-year conflict in Syria has
worsened, although they still strongly oppose military intervention in
favor of a negotiated transition. Some Russian expatriates working in
Syria were abducted this month.
Russian security officials were quoted in Monday’s issue of Kommersant, a
Russian daily newspaper, as saying that diplomats in Damascus would be
evacuated with the help of special forces, if necessary. The authorities
are also prepared to send 100 officers from a special armed unit of
Russia’s foreign intelligence service, called “Screen,” which was last
used to evacuate Russian diplomats from Baghdad in 2003. The newspaper
quoted an intelligence source as saying the officers were “ready for a
transfer to Damascus, however, the order from above has not been given.”

Ruslan R. Aliyev, an analyst with the Center for the Analysis of
Strategy and Technologies, a defense research group based in Moscow,
said renewed discussion of evacuations by Russia’s Foreign Ministry
reflected what he described as Moscow’s deeply pessimistic prognosis for
the region.

Source: NYT

...and I am Sid


This is a civil uprising. this is NOT an Islamic revolution. It is super stupid claiming that this is an Islamic revolution, although there are armed groups that are Islamic in force that fight the murder-assad


--The " air strike on a bakery" was belied by a TIME reporter.--" It was unclear from the videos if the building was indeed a bakery. Nearly all the dead and wounded appeared to be men, some wore camouflage, raising the possibility that the jet had targeted a rebel gathering." It's Observatory massacre BS, as before.

--"the regime is trying its best to disrupt food supplies in rebel-held areas." Actually it is the rebels who are blocking the roads, particularly between Damascus and Aleppo. But you wrongly  blame Assad for " choking them of food and resources."

--Fred Hof is the former State point man on Syria who testified to Congress a year ago that "the regime is a dead man walking." Hof claiming that Assad wants to turn Syria into a failerd state is another asinine statement.

--The basic problem is not with Assad, it is the West which refuses to negotiate, preferring a failed state. In fact that is the stated aim. So why blame Assad for a protracted war?

--The regime does not have a "scorched-earth policy." That is silly rhetoric. It is the terrorists --  a word you don't use -- that cause destruction by moving into populated areas to invite attack and use suicide bombers and destroy markets.

--The regime will reduce Damscus to rubble -- how do you dream this stuff up?

--Come on Tony, you can say it: T-E-R-R-O-R-I-S-T
You know, like the enemies of the US puppet states elsewhere.


'West faces dangerous game choosing 'bad' vs 'acceptable' terrorism' - Lavrov (EXCLUSIVE)
As the Syrian war grows more sectarian and violent with each day,
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov tells RT that Western powers'
habit of dividing terrorists between "bad and acceptable" could have
lasting consequences for the whole world.
I recommend to look this  interview all those who are interested to
know the exact position of Russia in solving the Syrian issue,
regardless of what position you stick to.


No, Syria is too close to the equator to experience winter.


Maybe you should live there for a while and than voice your opinion against the government one day.  You see, the problem in Syria is that when you hold a tyrant's family above God, there will be repercussions worse than God's wrath. The Assad's family that instills fear by killing and threatening.  That is not a way to live unless you the minority and feed of the majority by corruptive tactics in business and moral.  I have been to Syria many times.  And Egypt.  Dont talk about things you dont know. 

"Better to live under God's law, than a tyrant's." 


The current situation in Syria can be called a stub. The United States needs to stop supporting the terrorists, penetrating into Syria from other countries.
To urge all sides to stop the bloodshed and the beginning of the Syrian dialogue, without outside interference, as provided for in the Geneva communique, which also bears the signature of the USA. Treaties must be respected.
If you think that the regime of the President Bashar al-Assad will soon surrender under the onslaught of the enemy, then you are mistaken. The morale of the Syrian army on the rise it is most the knit force that successful grinds the hordes of locusts-terrorists which penetrates in Syria. The Syrian army bravely fighting for their Homeland. They are not going to surrender. Constructive Syrian opposition is already negotiating with the government about the future of Syria on the platform of the Geneva communique. Hindrance remain gunmen, who continue to provoke the Syrian army to respond.


@Don_Bacon  Don, I'm not sure where you're writing from ,but as a westerner who spent almost 3 years based in every city of syria, I can assure you that your support for Assad and his regime is dead (pun intended) wrong.

I can only assume that you've never been anywhere near Syria.


Don Bacon,

   You sir, should never discuss something you are not an expert on.  How dare you use that word "terrorist" towards people of Syria who want change to come for the majority of the people, not the 10% of the population who maintain wealth while the rest survive on basic incomes that is outrageous to say the least.  You dont know Assad's inner circle and what they are capable of.   Dont come to this forum and act like Assad is an innocent individual who is defying the West's demands.  You are the puppet, sir Bacon. 


@NaveedXVO Sir. 

A simple google image search for "snow in Syria" before posting. will enable you to avoid making your status of "a donkey's donkey" clear to the readership of this magazine, (with the exception of Don Bacon). 

I've seen winter in Syria. Believe me, it snows. 


@jaytsay44 "Better to live under God's law, than a tyrant's."

Have a look in Iran. Have a look in Saudi Arabia. Have a look in Bahrain. See how people are tortured and killed and restricted in many other ways in the name of God.

Laws are always implemented by people. People who claim that they know what God wants are lying and fooling you and themselves in the belief that they never make mistakes.

Sure, Assad isn't perfect. But the situation was slowly improving. And everyone who had a honest look at Libya could know that violent regime change in Syria will very likely cost at least a 100,000 lives and push the country into poverty and anarchy. Many people who were fooled into starting the uprising certainly were not ready to pay that price.


Dont come in this forum and Lie!  Bashar has no power in this situation. It is his brother and uncle that  are the culprits behinds all the acts of terrorism in the country of Syria.  Concerning the brave rebels, there is no turning back.  The current government must go.  The alternative will years of hunting down anyone suspected of voicing their opinion against the government will be hunted down like rats and put in prison and be killed.  You must enjoy seeing innocent people dying to get food at bread bakery, dont you?   I know there are many checkpoints in Damascus, every 100 yards or so.  This is a way of living?  lol.  You are a fool to think your royal Assad family will win.  Thank God his brother was killed in that automobile accident back in 94, otherwise the death toll would be much higher!


I know of three people that were killed because of government forces of Syria.  They were in Shelters in Birajam (Golan Heights) in the so called neutral zone when government snipers took out a few guys outside of the shelter.  So I know full well who is responsible for the majority of deaths in this civil war.  

You keep stating this is Sunni "propaganda."  This is far from the truth.  How can yourself an expert when you have not personally been affected by this matter as I have??


@jaytsay44 Syria had crony capitalism. But many of these cronies are Sunni. And the average Alawite is not richer than the average Sunni - that is just rebel propaganda.

You are confusing the causes and effects of the armed uprising. Apart from the oppression Syria was a rather peaceful country with little crime before the uprising started. 

The record of the US government with armed opposition is rather bloody. Ask the Indians. Look at Waco. And even peaceful opposition that looks successful can face harsh measures. See Occupy Wall Street or the Manning case.


My point concerning the quote is that I would rather have God's words instead of a tyrant's to make me feel good about myself.  I would rather have a statue built for God instead of for a Man who has done nothing for the Syrian people.  There are statues of Hafez Assad everywhere in Syria even in the village where my uncles resides.  A big golden head the size of a cow.  It's probably destroyed by now.  And you mention Iran and Saudi Arabia as this was never in my discussion.  Yes, they have some strict rules governing the people but at least you can be assured you wont be shot by your neighbor or some manic (maybe you?) if you dont like how your parents raised you or if your taxes are too high as here in USA. 

There was no  progress in Syria under Assad.  The "situation" was not improving. Corruption was rampant.  How long can someone be under a regime like that? The rich got richer in the minority sects while the majority sufferred.  Something happening here as well, huh Wim??  Every country has it faults but when people want change like they did in Syria, at least the government here in USA wont start shooting us in the middle of the streets!!  Let's hope not cause we are not far from being in a situation like Syria. 


Keep riding your wave of support for that murderer.  Your insane reasoning is beyond comprehension! 


You fool, why the hell would I lie that I was in Syria many times??  In Sham, Golan Heights (Birajam), Homs, et.  I been to the christian section of bobtooma and Rikuddeen.  In Mezza and just outside of Sham, I been to Marj El Sultan by the airport.  I have also been to Amman, Jordan a few times.  I have relatives in Syria and I know some that have suffered greatly by the hands of the government!!  You should refrain from making yourself look like an idiot. 


President of Syria in the interview to the Turkish newspaper
“Cumhuriyet” expressly said that he is not cling to his
chair and is ready to leave the office if he is not supported by the
people during the elections.   Position of the US - Bashar Assad should
resign. This is contrary to the Geneva communiqué  and norms of international law. Similarly, Bashar al-Assad can say: "Barack Obama must go!" and he would not listen. From the point of view of international law between the United States and Syria sovereign equality.



Bashar al-Assad is the legitimate President of a sovereign country. Don't you know?. He is also the Supreme commander-in-chief. This does not mean that Russia supports Bashar al-Assad. No - we support the Syrian people. Just we proceed from the realities that should be taken into account.


LOL!  How old is this pic?  I remember this demonstration held almost a year or so ago in the city of Damascus.  Very familar with the streets of this area.  This is support for Assad?  No way.