Despite Bashar al Assad’s recent military success, it is highly unlikely the regime will be able to win the war, at least “win” in the conventional sense of destroying the enemy and regaining control of the country, says former US State Department official Josh Cohen. There are a series of reasons for this, he writes for NOW Lebanon.
Loss of control over territory
While the military situation remains fluid, it is probably safe to say that a solid half of Syria remains out of the regime’s hands.
Even with Hezbollah’s support, Assad’s army remains overstretched. Their offensives are able to defeat the rebels in campaigns such as Qalamoun, but then the fight moves elsewhere, leaving the regime playing “whack-a-mole” with the rebels. ….In sum, the Assad regime simply does not have the troop strength to reclaim the majority of lost territories, and likely never will.
Money and Syria’s economy
Assad is now heavily reliant on Iran and Russia to provide him with the resources he needs to continue the war. Unfortunately for the regime, much of the revenue-generating pieces of the Syrian economy are in the northern areas over which they have lost control. ….
Increasing American aid to rebels
After much debate, it appears as though the Obama administration is providing so-called “lethal assistance” to the Syrian opposition, and there are numerous reports that weaponry has actually reached moderate rebels, including advanced anti-tank missiles. …. While increased American support will not be enough to allow the opposition to overthrow Assad, it does ensure that the opposition is able to increasingly resist Assad.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the demographics of Syria work strongly against Assad. The Alawite minority that constitutes the backbone of the Assad regime (including his most battle-hardened military units) make up only 10-12% of the population of Syria. The largely Sunni rebels, by contrast, represent approximately 60-70% of Syria. Its’ simple – the demographic math just does not add up in Assad’s favor.
|But while Syria’s armed rebellion has undergone visible consolidation both in the field and at the command level since September 2013, this highly positive development is unlikely to be enough to best the regime, argues Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. While the armed rebellion is far from being defeated, it has plateaued, both militarily and politically, he writes in a new analysis.
Fragmentation and dysfunctional competition among the rebel groups persist, and new rebel alliances have not yet demonstrated a notable increase in operational effectiveness. Credible estimates, moreover, indicate that overall rebel strength has not increased over the past year, suggesting that the rebellion has a “shrinking population of potential new recruits,” as a Carter Center report based on exhaustive field data noted in March 2014.
The critical problem is political. The interface of class and sectarian conflict that has characterized the entire Syrian crisis is leading to greater compartmentalization of the opposition. Each kind of political or military actor is consolidating within a narrowing social and geographical sphere. This is especially true of the growing number of rebel groups declaring an Islamist or Salafi orientation.
Many pro-democracy groups
Certainly, as a September 2013 study by the Arab Reform Initiative detailed, Syria’s armed rebellion contains many pro-democracy groups, and the declared “loyalty to some Islamist agenda” is often a device to secure external funding. But the publication of the Islamic Front’s political charter, Project of the Community of Believers , in November 2013—arguably the most developed founding document published by any rebel group—showed that the trend toward Salafism has not shifted, let alone reversed. In addition to predictably opposing secularism, the charter explicitly regarded shura (consultation) rather than democracy as the only viable means of rule, and it called for the establishment of a “guiding Islamic state .” Moreover, it pointedly rejected the term “civil state”—developed by “centrist” Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood to bridge the divide with secular liberals over the rival notion of “secular state”—deeming talk of such a state “misleading and resulting in the loss of rights.”
Formalizing and entrenching a Salafi agenda enables certain Islamist rebel groups to mobilize their social base and use resources and opportunities more effectively. By the same token, it alienates other communities—not just Alawites or non-Muslims but more generally urban middle classes, including many Sunnis, among whom overt activism has retreated despite widespread dislike of the Assad regime. It does not help the rebels’ cause more broadly that Saudi lobbying ensured that some of the opposition’s most visible leaders—National Coalition chairman Ahmad al-Jarba, provisional defense minister Asaad Mustafa, and SMC head Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir—were selected implicitly for their tribal backgrounds.
This might not have mattered as much had the Syrian opposition succeeded in building a genuinely united front in which Salafi Islamist rebels represented one constituency and diverse political parties and grassroots movements credibly represented the others. But such a front does not exist: the National Coalition lacks both credibility and substance as an all-encompassing framework. Additionally, the Saudi campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood—whose appeal in Syria is strongest among urban entrepreneurial classes—can only discourage parts of the opposition’s social base while diminishing further its ability to mobilize support among Syria’s smaller religious and ethnic communities.
The armed rebellion’s ability to encompass other parts of Syrian society has decreased. The fact that this translates into a definite divide between rebels and civilians over what motivates each of them, and over whether to seek a negotiated solution with or full military victory over the regime, points to a fundamental problem that is deepening rather than receding with the passage of time. Much like the regime, the armed rebellion’s Achilles’ heel is not military but political.
The rebels have proven remarkably tenacious, reflecting their social base’s deep resentment of decades-long regime mismanagement of the country’s resources and of the endemic corruption that compounded it by state officials and security agents. And the armed rebellion’s achievements in the face of severe material constraints and the regime’s marked advantages cannot be underestimated.
But despite their tenacity, it is dangerous to pin too much hope on the rebels’ promise of bringing down the regime or even of weakening it further. The armed rebellion’s underlying problems leave it ever more vulnerable. Anecdotal evidence and sample surveys conducted in liberated areas suggest that, as a result, a growing number of grassroots leaders inside Syria now believe that the longer the armed conflict continues, the less ground the opposition can hold. If this is true, then the rebellion will wane faster than it can consolidate from now on.
Yezid Sayigh is a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where his work focuses on the Syrian crisis, the political role of Arab armies, security sector transformation in Arab transitions, the reinvention of authoritarianism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peace process.