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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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