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?

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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