Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Assad’s Toughest Times

Syrian rebeles fire against government forces
Syrian rebels prepare to fire locally made shells against the Syrian government forces, Aleppo, Syria, 15 February 2015 Photo Aleppo Media Center

In the first half of 2015, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been going through what many experts believe to be its toughest times since the beginning of his war against opposition forces in 2011.

In March 2015, moderate Syrian rebels, backed by the United States and Jordan, captured the ancient town of Bosra al-Sham, a regime forces’ stronghold in southern Syria, after five days of fighting. Around a month later, in April 2015, a new rebel coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah (Arabic for the Army of Conquest), which brought together the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and a number of other Islamic armed groups, seized the strategic northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, and then the nearby city of Idlib.

Despite the continuing airstrikes by the US-led, Anti-IS Coalition, the Islamic State has also been making gains at the expense of the regime’s forces. In March 2015, IS wrested the ancient city of Palmyra from government forces, a town which is strategically located between Damascus and the contested eastern city of Deir Ezzor.

Even in the heart of the regime-controlled areas, rebels have recently managed to assassinate a number of the regime’s senior army officers. Moreover, a report by the London-based, Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat said in May that Russia, Assad’s main supporter, has started evacuating some of its personnel from Syria, and that Moscow has recently stopped weapon shipments to the regime. But this has not been confirmed by independent sources. Also, for the first time, the Syrian government has offered handsome incentives and is publishing billboard ads for citizens to join its army, a move that can indicate the regime’s losses are growing greater.

In April 2015, former U.S. envoy to Syria Robert Ford said a regime collapse cannot be ruled out. In an article published by the Middle East Institute, the Ambassador added that the regime’s schisms, its battlefield setbacks and its manpower shortages “are all signs of weakness… We may be seeing signs of the beginning of their end.” The same view was echoed by Muhannad Fayyad, an expert on Syrian politics. “The developments of the last three months show that Assad is weaker today than ever. It is about time to think about a post-Assad Syria.”

However, a number of experts seem to be more cautious. “This is not the first time Assad looks under a huge pressure,” says political columnist Mustafa al-Mallah. “There were times last year [2014] and the year before when everyone thought the Syrian regime was going to fall within weeks, and it has survived until today.”

Mallah does not expect Tehran to easily give up on Assad. As evidence, he refers to the statements made by Iranian officials pledging to support Assad to the end. Early June 2015, Qasem Soleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was quoted as saying “The world will be surprised by what we and the Syrian military leadership are preparing for the coming days.” If anything, the statement showed that Tehran intended to blow back. Some sources reported Iran had sent a force of 15,000 Iranian, Iraqi and Afghani fighters to Syria to help Assad hold his lines.

Mallah believes that unless gains are made in Damascus, Assad is not expected to fall soon. “Losing ground in the north or the south is one thing, losing ground in the capital is another,” he says. “As long as Assad is still holding Damascus as a stronghold, it is still early to talk about his fall, although he is currently under so much pressure.”

Mallah also wonders if the West and regional powers would allow Assad’s fall when the only power capable of filling up the vacuum would be IS and al-Nusra. “The recent ground gains have been won mainly by IS, al-Nusra and other similarly radical groups,” says Mallah. “Once Assad’s regime is down, those would be the only groups strong enough to take over. Western and regional powers realize this, and I don’t think they would like to see it happening.”

In fact, recent media reports indicated that Syrian opposition groups being trained by the US in Turkey have been instructed to exclusively fight IS, not Assad. The reports said a number of the trainees withdrew from the program upon the instructions.

So far, the Obama administration seems to be focused, still, on a political solution, when it comes to the change of the Syrian regime. In the meantime, Washington hasn’t been able to find a moderate partner on the ground to replace Assad; another reason why a number of experts rule out the idea of the regime’s fall.

For many of its participants, the Syrian war has become a war of survival. No party is likely to give up without a serious fight. There is one thing that all realize for sure: the biggest losers will remain the people of Syria. Economy will probably continue to collapse, causing Syrians to starve, and death toll is likely to grow as the fighting is becoming more intense.

“It is safe to say that Assad today seems closer to an end than a maybe year ago,” says Mallah. “However, that does not mean that his fall is eminent.”

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