Syria’s rebellion ‘on the wane’ – but Assad can’t win

syriacarnegieDespite 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.

Troop strength

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.


This brief extract is taken from an article that is part of a series on the state of the Syrian conflict that includes pieces on the Assad regime, the political opposition, and each side’s prospects.

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.

Why has Assad been able to retain power in Syria?

syria-protestWhy has Bashar al-Assad been able to hang onto power in western Syria? asks Frederic C. Hof, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

According to Ambassador Robert Ford, the top reason for the regime’s persistence has been the failure of the opposition to reassure Alawites that they would not be threatened in the wake of Assad’s departure, notes Hof, formerly the Obama administration’s special advisor for transition in Syria:

Second—and only second—has been the enormity of Iranian and Russian political and military support to the regime. Third is the evident unity and coherence of the regime, “which is lacking on the opposition side.” This is a remarkable thesis: massive military support from Tehran and Moscow is a secondary factor in the regime’s survival, and the performance of the West figures not at all; the victim is primarily responsible for his own victimization……

Leave aside the fact that opposition leaders have spoken publicly and eloquently about their vision of a Syria where citizenship will trump all other forms of political identification, and where Syria’s ethnic and sectarian diversity will be protected and celebrated. These themes were articulated eloquently by Burhan Ghalioun in the very first Friends of the Syrian People conference in Tunis and fully reflected in key opposition policy documents produced in Cairo in the summer of 2012. Surely it was the adherence of the mainstream, nationalist opposition to the principles of civil society and rule of law that enabled the United States and others in December 2012 to recognize the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

“The excellent performance of the opposition delegation at the recent Geneva II exercise did nothing to detract from a vision of Syria that is decent, liberal, and civilized,” Hof contends. RTWT

But it’s foreign Shia fighters who have tipped the balance in Assad’s favor, The Financial Times reports:

The mobilization of Shia fighters appears to be more successful than that of their Sunni counterparts, some argue, because it is organized and encouraged by Iran, from where recruits are trained and sent to Syria in groups, say Syrians who have joined Pro-Assad militias.

“The main big difference is the state backing. It is a far more organized process,” says Phillip Smyth, an analyst at the University of Maryland who follows Shia militias. Tehran’s systematic support makes Shia fighters a more unified force than that of the Sunni foreign fighters who tend to travel alone to Syria and join disparate groups.

The Shia fighters are associated with a shift in the balance of Syria’s three-year conflict in Mr Assad’s favor. In late 2013 his forces secured a belt of territory around Damascus and central Syria, up to the coastal stronghold of his own minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

“Assad was losing big swaths of territory then...When they came in, there was a clear shift in the balance of power on the ground,” said Janaina Herrera, analyst at the New Generation Consulting group in Beirut.

The State Department is about to begin delivering tens of millions of dollars’ worth of new assistance into Syria, including ambulances, communications gear and Toyota pickup trucks for the country’s beleaguered rebels, Gordon Lubold writes for Foreign Policy’s The Complex (HT: FPI). But the relatively small size of the new aid package is a vivid reminder that the Obama administration is continuing to take a largely hands-off approach to a country in the fourth year of a civil war in which nearly 150,000 people have died.

‘Slow-motion genocide’: counting Syria’s dead

karam_logo-trans-200Over the past three years, the Syrian people’s struggle for self-determination has been called many names. But no matter the name, revolution, uprising, civil war, proxy war, complicated conflict, one fact is clear: the world has been watching genocide in slow motion, says Lina Sergie Attar, a Syrian American architect and writer.

It seems that no number of dead Syrians will tip the world’s conscience, she writes for The New York Times:

Even the UN has stopped counting our dead, because it’s too dangerous, too difficult to verify. Most of us suspect another reason: no one cares.

To Syrians, every one of those numbers has a name, a family, and a lifetime of unfulfilled dreams. Their haunting faces greet us every day on our Facebook walls and Twitter feeds. Their stories become our own as we absorb them into our histories. Syrians do not have the luxury of the world’s blind eyes. We cannot stop counting our dead — the thousands wrapped in white shrouds, lined up in rows of graves dug in Syria’s rust-colored soil. We cannot turn away from their faces or their names.

From this fundamental desire to remember and mourn our immense loss, the “Over 100,000 dead. How many more?” oral memorial for Syria was born. On March 12, 2014, people will gather in front of the White House to read the names of 100,000 Syrians who have been killed over the past three years. The reading will take place for 72 continuous hours, ending on March 15, the third anniversary of the Syrian Revolution. Readers will recite the names in thirty-minute increments from lists— compiled from three independent sources — of Syrians killed by all forms of violence in the brutal conflict.

“When you call someone by their name, something materializes that transcends the ephemeral utterance. The concrete syllables of one’s name represents everything that person is or was supposed to be,” says Attar, a co-founder of Karam Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to Syria:

As we read 100,000 names, our dead gain the weight of recognition that they deserve but were never granted. Name after name, hour after hour, days through the nights, from reciting with a microphone in front of a bustling street audience to whispers alone in the dark surrounded by a slumbering world: we render each name visible and heard for a moment in time before it disappears once more.

We will face the world’s silence with our only weapon, one that ignited this revolution: our voices. And for three days we will unleash the ghosts we carry within us among the very politicians and officials who pretend to know the meaning of humanity.

Within each name, an embedded question: How many more?


Syria’s gathering force? ‘Confidential’ opposition transition plan ignores Assad

syria-protestThe Syrian opposition called today for a transitional governing body to oversee a U.N.-monitored ceasefire across Syria and expel foreign fighters, in a paper that avoided any mention of President Bashar al-Assad, Reuters reports:

The confidential paper, seen by Reuters, lays out a vision of post-conflict Syria with all ethnic groups participating in a transition process aimed at restoring peace and stability. Opposition and diplomatic sources said it deliberately does not refer to Assad, in line with a text agreed by world powers in June 2012 which calls for a transitional body with full executive authority, including over the security apparatus and the army, but which leaves the Syrian ruler’s fate open.

“I think that the opposition has come to the obvious conclusion that the best way to deal with Assad is to avoid mentioning him,” one Middle Eastern diplomat said.

The opposition outlined its vision for a political settlement in a four-page paper it distributed Wednesday, the Washington Post reports:

In its “statement of basic principles,” it called for the establishment of a transitional governing body, with full executive powers, which would be the only legal representative of the Syrian people until elections could be held. It also said that the body would work to ensure the withdrawal of foreign fighters from the country and end violence.

The transitional authority will be “the only legitimate body that represents the sovereignty and independence of the Syrian state and is the only one that represents the Syrian state internationally”, the paper said.

Asked why the document did not go into the fate of Assad, the opposition’s chief negotiator, Hadi al-Bahra, told Reuters:

“We can no longer talk about one person as the sole embodiment of Syria. We deliberately presented a legal paper. Anyone who reads it will realize that a political transition will be the foundation for a new democratic future.”

The Syrian peace conference known as Geneva II has just restarted after a weeklong pause, but the results so far are meager, notes a leading analyst.

Despite an evacuation of civilians from Homs, there has been no visible progress on the issue for which the conference was officially convened: negotiating a “transitional governing body” able to move Syria from rule by Assad and his family toward a more inclusive and internally stable political system, writes Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh and the author of Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution.


“Loyalist forces are not fit for reestablishing order and security in regions now controlled by the opposition, even after a ceasefire, Pierret writes for Carnegie Europe:

In those regions, the new security architecture must primarily rely on rebel forces themselves. This means that some form of logistical support for opposition forces will be necessary before, during, and after a peace process if these forces are to effectively provide law and order, contain extreme elements of the insurgency, and sustain a peace deal. And this, too, means that any peace agreement will have to address the most fundamental grievances of the Syrian opposition—namely, it will have to achieve a political transition away from today’s minoritarian and exclusionary power structure and give the opposition a real stake in Syria’s future order.

This week there were signs that the jihadist al-Nusra group was taking sides by joining non-jihadi fighters against ISIS and chasing it out of an oil-rich region, analyst Borzou Daragahi writes for the FT:

As shaky talks meant to hammer out Syria’s future resume in Geneva, the greatest puzzle of the civil war may be al-Nusra. It is perhaps the most effective of the armed groups opposed to Mr Assad, but one described by western officials as among the most dangerous.

Over its two years in existence, the group has pulled off increasingly complex operations, employing explosives-laden vehicles and suicide bombers with often devastating results. It has also found sources of international and local funding, and tapped into global networks to draw fresh fighters into its ranks. Despite joining the battle late, it has become a spearhead of the revolution. … Most important, it has managed to do what few other jihadi groups have achieved: win over a large number of civilians, even some of those who vehemently disagree with its extremist ideology.

“Almost all the major battles won by [the rebels] were led by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters,” says Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a Belgian historian and Arabist who closely tracks the conflict. “They were always or almost always on the front line, whether by suicide attack, car bombings or frontal attacks. The other guys just come in to clean up the mess afterwards.”

It is popular despite evidence of human rights abuses, including summary executions of alleged regime supporters and the imposition of harsh Islamic mores on women.

“Of all the groups on the hardline end of the rebellion, Jabhat al-Nusra has played the most pragmatic political game,” says Charles Lister, a Syria specialist at the Brookings Doha Centre. “That’s contributed to the situation where they’re an al-Qaeda group but also among rebel groups and among some sections of the political opposition. Most rebel groups on the ground either support or accept Jabhat al-Nusra’s role in the fight.”

The group also claims to be establishing sustainable forms of governance in liberated areas.

“We started with eight fighters and now can talk about entire liberated regions, destroyed airports and high-security headquarters,” a man described as Mr Golani said in an hour-long December 18 interview with Al Jazeera.

“We actually have legislative bodies that take care of a lot of things like the judiciary system and public services. They [the legislative bodies] also manage electrical power and oil facilities, and recently we started managing oilfields that we took back from the regime,” he said.


“Ever since the break with Isis, Jabhat al-Nusra has become more sensitive to environmental circumstances than Baghdadi is,” says Kirk Sowell, founder of Uticensis, a risk management firm based in Jordan. “Jabhat al-Nusra has tried to work with the Islamist wing of the opposition, especially the Islamic Front, and sort of left the secularists alone.”

“Al-Nusra will always be al-Qaeda but we can’t forget that most of the Nusra men in the rank and file aren’t Qaeda-spirited fighters,” says Cedric Labrousse, a French researcher monitoring the Syrian conflict. “Many are forgetting today the huge waves of Free Syrian Army men coming to Nusra for guns and money for their families.”

Despite al-Nusra’s extreme ideology and frequently ruthless violence, Mr Lister from the Brookings Doha Centre says Mr Golani demonstrates an evolution in the tactics and rhetoric of jihadi groups that have failed because of their inability to win sustained levels of popular support. Even as more moderate rebels take on Isis, few believe an attack on al-Nusra could fellow. Mr Lister says that the possibility of foreign fighters going back home and fighting cannot be counted out.

But he adds: “Ever since they emerged in Syria, they [al-Nusra] have shown zero sign of carrying out attacks beyond Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The real fear is the fact that an al-Qaeda group has managed to attain such strong and mass popular support on the ground.”


Bosnia’s lessons for Syria?

beginning of the Syrian civil war, many observers have drawn parallels between Syria and Bosnia. The Geneva II talks echo efforts to resolve the conflict in the Balkans 20 years ago, says Philippe Leroux-Martin, a fellow in the Future of Diplomacy Project of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

What are the lessons? If there is a general one from Bosnia for the parties meeting in Switzerland, it is the need for humility, he suggests in The New York Times:

Instead of focusing exclusively on ending violence in the near term, negotiators should see any peace deal for Syria as a moment of transition when parties define the institutional and legal parameters under which they will pursue a conflict no longer under arms. Factions will not abandon their larger aspirations at the negotiating table. Diplomacy’s power to steer conflict lies largely in its ability to shape future behavior through electoral and constitutional engineering.

Bosnia teaches us that war does not end when the weapons are put down, according to Leroux-Martin, the author of “Diplomatic Counterinsurgency: Lessons From Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

As the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted: “The ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.” The experience of Bosnia is that wartime elites continue to pursue belligerent objectives even after the cessation of hostilities.