News / Middle East

Analysts: Syria's Assad is Fortunate in His Enemies

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with China's state television CCTV, in Damascus, Sept. 23, 2013.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with China's state television CCTV, in Damascus, Sept. 23, 2013.
Reuters
Bashar al-Assad, who only a month ago faced the likelihood of U.S. missile strikes that could have tipped the balance of Syria's war against him, has won a reprieve.

His supporters, political sources in Damascus say, are jubilant, convinced the threat of regime change has lifted and that the Assads can face down opponents they consider weak - U.S. President Barack Obama and France's President Francois Hollande among them - just as they saw off their predecessors.

“I think they feel that they can live this out and wait for leaders like Hollande and Obama to leave office, just as they did with Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush,” said one well-placed source in Damascus, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“I think Assad feels that the chemical weapons actually saved his regime, rather than brought it down,” said the source.

The mood shift is a consequence of the world's confused response to a sarin gas attack on rebel suburbs of Damascus last month, the sources say. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's ally in the 30 months-old conflict, conjured up a diplomatic process to confront the atrocity.

Assad says he will comply with a deal Moscow struck with Washington for him to surrender his chemical arsenal. Washington and its allies blame Assad loyalists for the Aug 21 attack, which they say killed 1,400 people, while the Syrian government pointed the finger at the rebels.

In almost daily interviews with Russian, Chinese, European and even American media, Assad emphasizes Syria's contribution to fighting jihadi extremism while explaining how lengthy and costly the disarmament process will be. A composed Assad gives every sign of becoming a devout convert to diplomacy.

He also has agreed in principle for Syrian government officials to attend talks with the opposition in Geneva aimed at agreeing a peaceful political transition, though authorities also have made clear they will not simply concede power.

Russia's diplomatic coup, on the face of it, provides Assad with a shield behind which he can step up his bombardment of rebel positions - so long as he does not use chemical weapons.

Syria's civil war looms large as world leaders gather this week for the annual U.N. General Assembly. Envoys from the five big U.N. powers - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - have been meeting to negotiate a resolution to back the U.S.-Russian deal to remove Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014.

“The deal avoids a regional tremor and may open the path for Geneva 2 [peace talks] but it won't stop the fighting or resolve the conflict because Assad is part of the conflict and not part of the solution,”said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist on Beirut's an-Nahar newspaper.

Enemies have no appetite for war

Naoum said Assad has been singularly fortunate in his enemies: a fragmented Syrian opposition, divided Arab countries, and a Turkish government whose reach exceeds its grasp.

“He is fortunate because he has Iran, which is willing to go all the way to support him, while there isn't a single Arab country that has this kind of determination to enter the battlefield on the side of the opposition,” said Naoum.

“He is also fortunate because there is an American president who has no appetite for war and because Russia wants to settle its scores with America [via Syria]”.

Yet Naoum, like many students of the Syrian conflict, judges that luck will not enable the Assad government to “regain control of all of Syria or to reimpose the existing regime.”

“Assad recognizes that he cannot control the whole country but he will never say it publicly. It is a chess game. Bashar is looking at the next three steps ahead,” said one European ambassador in the region.

Ultimately, the conflict has evolved beyond Assad. It has become a fight between non-Arab Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Gulf Arab states and a bone of contention between the U.S. and a Russia trying to recover its old role as the world's second superpower.

Assad is just a pawn among larger, more effective players than himself.

Assad, experts say, will surrender as many weapons as he needs to avoid a U.S. strike and keep Russia on his side but is  likely to keep some as an insurance policy because he would have learnt from the fate of Libyan leader Moammer Gadhafi and Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who surrendered their weapons and had no ultimate deterrent when they were toppled and killed.

“Assad's game plan is obviously to survive beyond everything else, but that survival will mean keeping Russia on his side, giving up the majority of his stocks of weapons of mass destruction, stopping American use of force and keeping the international community fractured and indeed to show that the opposition is not united enough to take power,” said Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics.

Protracted war

Syrian troops, with the help of Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah militia, have been consolidating their hold on rural areas around the capital Damascus, Assad's bastion.

Assad, Syrian sources say, is throwing his efforts behind keeping control of Damascus, the Mediterranean coast which is the heartland of his Alawite sect, and Homs, which links those two regions. He will leave the north and east in the hands of mainstream rebels and jihadis fighting bitterly for its control.

The original target of the gas attack in the Ghouta area looks set to be a target again of an army offensive to clear it once and for all of rebels, a pro-Syrian Lebanese official told Reuters.

“The battle to flush out eastern and western Ghouta from rebels will start soon so that all the areas near Damascus will be clear and safe,” he said. “Assad will close off the areas that are important to him [Homs and the Mediterranean coast] and for the rest he would not care even if the biggest battles took place in rural areas of Idlib, and Aleppo.”

While U.N. inspectors go through the tortuous and long process of accounting for and destroying Syria's chemical stockpiles, on the ground nobody can foresee a breakthrough in a conflict that so far has killed 100,000 people and displaced millions.

Within the rebels, another civil war is raging now between fighters from al-Qaida's Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and rival rebel forces in northern Syria, near the Turkish border. This plays in Assad's favor.

Russia, which faces its own challenge from Islamists on its southern fringes, has accused the West of helping militants by seeking Assad's removal without paying enough attention to the potential consequences. Putin said rebels could eventually expand attacks beyond Syria and the Middle East.

Assad, meanwhile, looks set to remain president of Syria, a country that his family has ruled for 40 years, and will run for next year's presidential vote, both his foes and allies believe.

“This is a decades old struggle,” Dodge said. “At the moment, I don't see anything that is going to oust Assad. The opposition is still very fractured, America's position is still very tenuous and Russia still has a block on the Security Council. He is in Syria for many years to come.”

“All he has to do in order to win is not lose,” said Dodge.

You May Like

Changing Under Pressure, IS ‘Potent’ as Ever

US intel officials describe Ramadi's fall as concerning, but say it isn't emblematic of larger effort to degrade IS capabilities More

Nigeria Fuel Shortage Shows Fragility of Africa’s Oil Giant

Although it is the largest oil producer in Africa, country has nearly ran out of fuel it needs to power its generators, cars and airplanes over the past week More

Arrested Football Officials Come Mainly From the Americas

US Justice Department alleges defendants participated in 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through corruption of international soccer More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Cari
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
May 27, 2015 9:31 PM
Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.

VOA Blogs