Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Assad’s strategy is based on survival in the short term

All eyes have been on Iraq and Gaza lately, but the carnage in Syria just grinds on. Despite military gains earlier this year by the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, its prospects of prevailing do not look good. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the regime surviving as it is in the medium-term, let alone the long-term.

In recent weeks, the Al Assad regime has suffered several setbacks, particularly in the north-east of the country. It has lost most of its positions in Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor provinces, as well as a large number of soldiers, to the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or ISIL.

Casualties have been so high that there have been reports of regime efforts to mobilise among minorities, including Christians, to fight the rebels. This reliance on minorities cannot endure. Not only does it mean the regime is depending on a relatively small and dwindling demographic base, in the end it will tie the fate of the minorities with that of the regime – and that could pose an existential threat to them. As in Iraq, they will pay the highest price for the conflict.

At the same time, the regime has engaged in an underhanded form of sectarian cleansing in sensitive areas under its control. In central Syria, along communications lines between Damascus and the coast, the regime’s bastion, the largely Sunni population has fled, and the regime has not allowed them to return.

Yet even in this area, which abuts the Lebanese border in the Qalamoun district, the regime’s hold has been tenuous. Mr Al Assad and Hizbollah have made much of their takeover of Qalamoun earlier this year, but their victory was, at best, a pyrrhic one. Some 4,000-5,000 rebels remain in the area and the regime and Hizbollah has been unable to crush them.

While there are no accurate figures for the number of Hizbollah combatants in the area, in Lebanon estimates are that as many as 10,000 men are engaged in the Qalamoun fighting. If true, this would represent a heavy drain on Hizbollah’s resources, for a battle in a thankless area traditionally difficult to control.

Even near Damascus the Syrian regime has found it very difficult to expand its writ. All around the capital it is caught up in a succession of bloody stalemates. For instance the regime has been unable to take Mleha in the south-eastern suburbs of Damascus, despite months of heavy bombing. That means that the road to Damascus airport remains exposed.

But beyond the growing casualty toll and the stubbornness of his foes, Mr Al Assad’s real problem is that he offers no political horizon. The regime has manoeuvred itself into an open-ended war, the outcome of which must be a victory by one side or the other. Given that the regime’s backbone is the Alawite community, with other minorities, it is almost impossible to imagine them ultimately defeating the Sunni majority.

Mr Al Assad’s strategy has been focused on short-term survival. But as the war drags on, it will become even more of a burden on the Syrian president’s allies, Iran and Hizbollah above all. Mr Al Assad’s options will continue to shrink. All he can do is try to stay in place and hope for the best, hardly a winning plan.

Iran has paid $18 billion (Dh66bn) to prop up Mr Al Assad, according to an Iraqi politician speaking privately. The figure must be confirmed, but Hizbollah has lost many of its best combatants in Syria. The party and Iran have suffered for their hubris, believing there was a military solution to the Syrian crisis. Yet with Iran now facing a major challenge in Iraq and still under severe international financial pressure, any project of Iranian regional hegemony appears to be collapsing.

Furthermore, at the heart of Mr Al Assad’s approach today is a fundamental flaw. He has focused on controlling Damascus, the coastal area and the areas linking the two. This has amounted to virtual abandonment of the rest of Syria. How can a president pursuing a strategy of de facto partition triumph, especially when he cannot even secure areas under his control?

Meanwhile, Mr Al Assad’s forces are persisting in their barbaric attacks against civilians, making any prospect of a negotiated outcome, even one involving his own departure, unworkable. This situation can only benefit extreme Islamist groups, such as the Islamic State, who enjoy abundant financing and will carry on their attacks against Mr Al Assad’s decrepit regime.

In light of this, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s criticism of President Barack Obama merits repeating. Mr Obama’s failure to build up a more moderate fighting force in Syria left a “big vacuum” that has been filled by the jihadists, she told The Atlantic last week. Mrs Clinton is right. America can fight the Islamic State all it wants in Iraq, but for as long as it refuses to do so in Syria, the organisation will remain potent.

All these factors – rising losses among his troops, the near hopelessness of a decisive military victory, the absence of any political horizon, the ongoing brutality of the Syrian army, and the exhaustion of Mr Al Assad’s leading regional allies – suggest the Syrian president is living on borrowed time. He and his community and their allies will be swallowed by the chaos they have created in Syria. What comes after cannot be reassuring.

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