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

Tunnel Bombs Highlight Savagery of Aleppo Fight

Rebels have used tunneling tactic near government buildings, command posts or supply routes to set off explosives; they detonated their largest bomb this week under Syria's intelligence headquarters More

Sierra Leone Launches New Initiative to Stop Ebola Spread

Government hopes Infection and Prevention Control Units, IPC, will help protect patients and healthcare workers More

UN Official: Fight Against Terrorism Must Not Violate Human Rights

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says efforts by states to combat terrorism are resulting in large scale rights violations against the very citizens they claim to defend 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.
Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boyi
X
Jeff Seldin
March 05, 2015 2:36 AM
A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boy

A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Ukrainian Authorities Struggle to Secure a Divided Mariupol

Since last month's cease-fire went into effect, shelling around the port city of Mariupol has decreased, but it is thought pro-Russian separatists remain poised to attack. For the city’s authorities, a major challenge is gaining the trust of residents, while at the same time rooting out informants who are passing sensitive information to the rebels. Patrick Wells reports for VOA.
Video

Video Volunteer Gauge-Watchers Help Fine-Tune Weather Science

An observation system called CoCoRaHS is working to improve weather science, thanks to thousands of volunteers across the country who measure precipitation in their own backyards, then share their data through the Internet. VOA's Shelley Schlender reports.
Video

Video NASA Spacecraft Approaches a Dwarf Planet

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will make history on Friday, March 6, when it becomes the first man-made object to orbit a dwarf planet named Ceres. It is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, almost 500 million kilometers from Earth. Among other objectives, Dawn will try to examine two mysterious bright white spots detected on the planet’s surface. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Muslims Radicalized Online

Young Muslims are being radicalized ‘in their bedrooms’ through direct contact with Islamic State or ISIL fighters via the Internet, according to terror experts. There are growing concerns that authorities and Internet providers are not doing enough to counter online extremism - which analysts say is spread by a prolific network of online supporters around the world. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video African Americans Recall 1960s Fight For Voting Rights

U.S. President Barack Obama and thousands of people will gather in the small southern U.S. city of Selma, Alabama, Saturday, March 7 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic voting rights march that became known as “Bloody Sunday." VOA’s Chris Simkins traveled to Alabama and introduces us to some of the foot soldiers of the voting rights struggles of the 1960s.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More