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.

Alarmed by the sense that Washington is preparing for a scenario in which the Syria war drags on for many months yet, some of Turkey’s recent moves may point to a growing urgency in Ankara about quickly resolving the Syria crisis, rather than living with the consequences of a long war.  Foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu last weekend publicly nominated Assad’s deputy president, Farouk al-Sharaa, as an acceptable figure to head a transitional government, a suggestion quickly rejected by rebel groups.

Even the reported deployment of some 150 U.S. soldiers in neighboring Jordan to help that country plan for various Syria contingencies is unlikely to unduly trouble Damascus. Reports of the deployment suggests its purpose is to help “insulate” a key regional ally from the fallout on its own terrain from Syria’s civil war, and perhaps to prepare for an emergency contingency of securing Syria’s stock of chemical weapons should the regime be in danger of losing control of them. The political consensus in Washington opposes direct military intervention in Syria, even if there are differences over the question of facilitating arms transfers to the rebels.

Insulating Jordan could even be a two-way street, not only preventing the Syrian military from conducting cross-border operations but also preventing anti-Assad insurgents using it as a sanctuary from which to stage attacks: The salafist current in the Syrian insurgency would, in the long-term, pose as much threat to the Hashemite monarchy as to the Assad dictatorship, and Jordan hardly wants jihadists operating on its own soil, even if their immediate target is in Damascus. It may also want to avoid the sort of artillery barrages that raged across the Turkey-Syria border last week, which are likely to have begun because the border territory on the Syrian side is in rebel hands, and Turkey has been allowing the rebels to operate from its territory. Unable to directly retake that ground, Assad’s forces have instead resorted to shelling rebel held border areas, and apparently deliberately firing into Turkey, too.

(PHOTOS: The Victims of Assad)

Things are hardly looking good for Assad at this point.  His prospects for defeating the rebellion and restoring control over all of Syria appear remote. He governs by naked force and fear of the alternative, and even then, over a shrinking domain. Still, he’s far from beaten, and if anything, the more immediate danger may be that Syria itself is breaking up into warring fiefdoms along the lines seen in neighboring Lebanon from the 1970s until 1992.

Assad’s opponents, of course, had hoped that he would, by now, have been removed from the scene, either by exile, imprisonment or death.  But the regime itself appears to have either chosen, or stumbled onto,  the terrain of sectarian civil war — the “Milosevic Option” we dubbed it last January — stirring fears of an extremist-led Sunni rebellion to rally his own Alawite sect and other minorities, and even the urban Sunni bourgeoisie, and then making that a self-fulfilling prophecy by violently suppressing peaceful protests. Assad also coolly assessed the regional and international strategic balance and concluded that he could count on strong backing from Iran and Russia against any attempt to dispatch him a la Gaddafi.

Milosevic, of course,  eventually got his comeuppance at the hands of his own people, and died in a prison cell at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It may well be that a similar fate eventually awaits Assad. But Milosevic was ousted eight years after the beginning of the wars that ended Yugoslavia, and in the interim, the Serbian strongman had succeeded in making himself indispensable to the process ending the very wars he’d played a major role in starting. That moment came when ending the war became a greater priority in the minds of the global power brokers than changing the power arrangements. Assad if far from achieving that goal, and he may never do so. But with the second anniversary of the Syrian rebellion just over four months away, he may have more reason for satisfaction over the course of events, at this point,  than do his adversaries.

MORE: Why the Syrian Rebels May Be Guilty of War Crimes

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