News / Middle East

Syria’s Civil War Could Drag On Much Longer

Syrian army soldiers waved portraits of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in July, 2000, when he became president.Syrian army soldiers waved portraits of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in July, 2000, when he became president.
x
Syrian army soldiers waved portraits of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in July, 2000, when he became president.
Syrian army soldiers waved portraits of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in July, 2000, when he became president.
David Arnold
For more than a year, Syria experts have been predicting the imminent fall of the 42-year-old Assad regime, but President Bashar al-Assad continues to hold power and shows no sign of giving it up.

Even as rebel forces have moved into the suburbs of Damascus and are trying to close in on the capital’s center, some experts on the civil war say it could drag on for another four years.

“I don’t look at this conflict in terms of ending in 2013,” said Aram Nerguizian, a Syria expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C. research organization. “I look at it in terms of 2015, 2016, 2017.

“It’s not because the regime is so strong or the opposition is so weak. It’s because this has become a much bigger conflict than just Syria,” Nerguizian says. “This is a conflict where a lot of scores are being settled. You have an influx of forces that are increasingly radical ….”

He says President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is now getting help from Iran, Russia and factions in Lebanon, and is learning how to fight an effective counter-insurgency war. The fighting, he adds, is settling into a drawn-out war of attrition.

According to the United Nations, the fighting so far has killed an estimated 70,000 and displaced more than five million.

“Frankly, I can imagine a much higher death toll,” said Nerguizian. He compared the fighting to the 15-year civil war in neighboring Lebanon that took an estimated 120,000 lives between 1975 and 1990.

The truth is not on Twitter

Predictions of Assad’s downfall aside, many experts are now saying it’s impossible to predict how the civil war will turn out.

Joshua Landis, director of the Middle East Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma, even describes the outcome of the 22-month revolution as “a crap shoot.”

Both sides – the Assad regime and its opponents – are involved in a liars’ contest
Nerguizian also is cautious when it comes to predicting how the civil war will turn out.

“We don’t really know a great deal about where the truth lies in terms of what the regime is capable of and the same for the opposition," he says. “We’re living in this Twitter, Facebook and instant media universe that makes us feel like we are active participants …… when in reality we have no direct link.”

Both Assad’s regime and the opposition engage in extensive propaganda. The regime’s theme is its eventual victory. The opposition makes similar claims and talks about points and tipping points.

“Both sides – the Assad regime and its opponents – are involved in a liars’ contest,” Nerguizian said. “And frankly that’s actually worked into the battle strategies of both sides.” 

As an example, he says Assad has used predictions of his weakness and eventual defeat to lure the opposition into overly aggressive and ill-considered military tactics. Then Assad’s forces launch fierce counter-attacks. The ploy, Nerguizian says, is similar to Russian strategies in Chechnya.

Who controls Syria right now?

On a map of Syria, the rebels control most of the landscape. But the government continues to hold Damascus and the cities of Homs and Hama to the north of the capital, two Mediterranean coastal regions including the port cities of Tartus and Latakia, and part of Aleppo, the largest city in the country.

“They own Damascus,” said Landis. “They own the downtown parts of almost every city.” 

Opposition brigades now control many low-income suburbs and half of the nation’s large commercial city of Aleppo, “but the Christian quarters, the upper-class quarters are still in government hands and it’s difficult for the opposition to make those sorts of inroads because they will lose a lot of people…,” Landis said.

Assad forces have withdrawn from a large eastern Kurdish region and are under pressure in the Jazeera region’s major city, Deir al-Azzour.

Nerguizian believes, however, that the battles are far from over.

“For all the talk of Aleppo falling to the opposition, you have basically had a divided city for going on seven months now,” he said. “You’re going to see a much stronger resistance in the centers like Damascus.”

Experts now describe Assad waging a war of attrition. The strategy is to wear down the opposition, retreat when necessary and deny the other side victory. And instead of sending ground troops into hostile areas of the big cities, the army uses artillery to bombard rebel-held neighborhoods from a safe distance.

Iran and Russia remain reliable donors to Assad’s war effort, according to Syrian dissident and expatriate blogger Ammar Abdulhamid.

“Without continuing arms supplies from both countries, and funds from Iran and Iraq, the regime would have collapsed by now,” he says.

Lots of the upper class cling to him because they don’t want to get bombed by Syrian jet airplanes
Assad’s forces also are getting help from Iran’s Quds Force fighters and Hezbollah, the militants based in Lebanon. Nerguizian said Hezbollah is protecting the Shi’a shrine at Zeinab, Shi’a villages in the Bekaa Valley and a crucial highway link between Beirut and Damascus.

The Washington Post also reports that Hezbollah and Quds advisors in the Zabadani area are training newly recruited Alawites for Assad’s pro-government shabiha militia.

"Sitting on the fence" to avoid the bombs

Syria experts say foreign governments that support the anti-Assad revolution often fail to appreciate that the Syrian leader still has widespread support, not only among the Alawite minority, but among many Sunni Muslims who have been able to take advantage of the economic opportunities of the Ba’athist Party state.

“The side of this that we don’t like to talk about is that the fact that you have still far too much support for this regime,” said Nerguizian,  adding that there are “way too many Syrians in a population of 22 million people who frankly are sitting on the fence or are quietly rooting for whoever brings stability.”

Landis said fear is a major factor in this apparent loyalty to Assad.

“Lots of the upper class cling to him because they don’t want to get bombed by Syrian jet airplanes,” he said.

Assad draws most of his strength from his fellow-Alawites who share leadership of the nation.

“Syria is led by cousins and in-laws,” Landis said. “Traditional family values and a different kind of glue, a sectarian family of glue.”

You May Like

Captured IS Militants Explain Why They Fought

Fighters from Turkey, Syria tell VOA Kurdish Service what drew them to extremism, jihad More

Security Experts Split on Kenyan Barrier Wall

Experts divided on whether initiative aiming to keep out al-Shabab militants is long-awaited solution or misguided effort More

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Officials say they hope to turn Manila into the next Macau, which has long been Asia’s gambling hub More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

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