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Syria Conflict: How Much Longer Will Assad Last?

Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo June 12, 2012.
Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo June 12, 2012.
Street demonstrations to bring an end to the Assad family’s 42-year rule over Syria have turned into a bloody conflict, now in its 15th month, between one of the Middle East’s best-equipped fighting forces and a growing insurgency of protesters and militia largely comprised of government soldiers who defected in support of the armed rebellion. How much longer this conflict – and President Bashar al-Assad as its apparent cause - will last is a question pondered by many today, but not easily answered.

The success of the rebels’ guerilla tactics against Assad’s larger and more formidable military and security forces have surprised many experts. Observers following recent advances by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel militias have discovered new leadership among these disparate fighting units. Given the situation on the ground, they wonder not only who will win, but how long the conflict will last.

“If you look at the battlefield, Bashar [al-Assad] is not president of all of Syria anymore, because he has lost control of so much of Syria, even his own suburbs,” said Ken Katzman, a Middle East Affairs specialist with the Congressional Research Service, in an interview this week with alHurra TV.

“Even without foreign intervention, these rebels are making significant progress,” said Katzman. He cautioned, however, that he does not believe that FSA units are “about to march on the presidential palace.”

The rebels’ success is not assured, but even if they did win, some say Syria would suffer a power vacuum and be entrenched in internal strife for years to come.

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian honor guard soldiers carry the coffins of Syrian army soldiers who were killed in recent violence in the country, during their funeral procession at the military hospital, in Damascus,
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian honor guard soldiers carry the coffins of Syrian army soldiers who were killed in recent violence in the country, during their funeral procession at the military hospital, in Damascus,
“Any expectation of a short-term outcome, for example, an escalation with Turkey or the Assad regime being somehow magically whisked away through force or a political outcome doesn’t change the reality of the underlying social, economic political and communal pressures…” said Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies,

A diplomatic solution to Syria’s crisis may be remote. It remains to be seen if Assad, who has all but ignored a six-point peace plan put forward by joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, will honor his latest commitment to end the violence less than three weeks before the mandate of 300 U.N. monitors in Syria is set to expire. Even Russia agreeing recently in Geneva to an Action Group for Syria road map toward the formation of a “transition government” in which Assad would play a role offers no end to the fighting as Syrian opposition leaders have unanimously rejected the agreement.

The first 15 months of the conflict, according to some sources, have resulted in more than 16,000 deaths – mostly civilians. Thousands more have been detained and tortured, according to a Human Rights Watch investigation released July 3. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports an average of a 100 killings in Syria per day.

Rebel military councils dominate in crucial rural areas

Military offensives on both sides are changing the strategic landscape of Syria daily. The government’s heavy weapons have destroyed rebel-held neighborhoods in at least a half dozen cities with rebel forces fading into the countryside only to return and attempting to reclaim positions lost.

Joseph Holliday, author of ”Syria’s Maturing Insurgency,” a report released in mid-June by the Institute for the Study of War, writes that the Assad regime “retains the capacity to clear whatever it chooses through the use of overwhelming firepower” but did little in the first year of the conflict to try to capture and hold several urban rebel strongholds. In major engagements over the past few weeks, Assad’s security forces have retaken three urban centers – Idlib, Homs and Zabadani – and established large military garrisons for their defense. However, Holliday added that the regime does not have the forces necessary to pursue rebel divisions that now prosper in the countryside.

“Neither side has the strength to defeat the other,” Holliday writes.
Rebel-held zones in Syria.
Rebel-held zones in Syria.

Holliday’s report provides a graphic look at the positions of rebel forces listing political and military structures of the opposition inside Syria, as well as the names of leaders and battalion strengths of military councils in Homs, Hama, Deraa and Idlib. A map identifies enclaves in rural areas within striking distance of all major cities along the Route M5 corridor that links all major inland population centers along a western corridor from Lebanon to Turkey, including Damascus, the capital, and the major commercial city of Aleppo.

Nerguizian said the Holliday report “is accurate to the point that you have an Assad regime which has largely failed in implementing a security response over the early months of 2012.” The regime tried to retake the rebel-held rural areas around Aleppo and Idlib, but “those have been largely unsuccessful efforts so far,” he said.

Many of the government advances were “short-term successes” in cities closer to Damascus such as Hama and Homs, Neeguizian said. He pointed to sizeable pockets of rebel autonomy in Idlib and on the Lebanese frontier that “reflect a decision by the Assad regime that it’s far more important to maintain support and over-watch in Damascus and… Aleppo.”

Riad Khawaji of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai believes the Holliday report is “a bit out-dated.”

“Most of the rural areas and especially the major urban centers of Idlib and Aleppo in the north are now under the control of the rebels,” Khawaji said. He added he had seen reports that FSA forces had taken control of two Syrian military airfields. Khawaji said Turkish jets that were scrambled recently along the Syrian border to prevent another downing of a Turkish jet by Syria have, in effect, created a no-fly zone that gives the rebels air cover for their advances in the north.

Looking for new leadership in Syria

“An alternative source of authority and security in Syria may be emerging,” writes Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the Syria Comment blog. Following the Geneva agreement of last weekend, Landis speculates that, in time, the militias of the FSA that can effectively cooperate with the revolutionary councils and can deliver field successes “will rise to the top, pulling the smaller brigades into their ranks.”

Experts attribute the successes of the FSA and its array of militias to several factors: growing popular support among majority Sunnis who see no government reforms coming from Damascus; increasing defections from Assad’s forces to the anti-government militias; a government and national economy weakened by global sanctions; and increasing FSA access to better weapons and communications systems smuggled across the Turkish and Lebanese borders.

Despite the early summer stalemate, the regime refuses to order many battalions into action to reduce defections by predominantly Sunni divisions, said Khawaji. Instead, it seems to rely on four Alawite divisions of known loyalists, supplemented by intelligence services and non-uniformed militia knows as the shabiha.

“Today they are over-stretched and they focus on Damascus,” Khawaji said.

Provincial military councils of the FSA have also coordinated closely with the three major organizations of the civilian opposition within Syria, said Elizabeth O’Bagy of the Institute for the Study of War. In addition to staging the protests that sparked the revolution, revolutionary councils organized a number of general strikes in several cities. In her “Syria’s Political Struggle: Spring 2012backgrounder,” O’Bagy describes a three-week commercial strike in May in Hamadiya, the major marketplace in central Damascus where 70 percent of the shops shut down.

“Even after government forces ordered the shops to open, about 50 percent of them remained shut” for the entire three-week period, O’Bagy said.

O’Bagy said rebels have created alternative civic institutions in areas they control. In the Homs and Idlib countrysides under militia control, she said, “they are training teachers for the upcoming school year, opening medical services, food and aid distribution, sending representatives to Turkey and Lebanon to solicit aid.”

Experts believe that cooperation between protesters and the FSA militias may eventually produce a new type of Syrian political leadership, one more promising than the mostly expatriate Syrian National Council which seems unable to garner the support of rebel forces and the political opposition inside the country.

Signs of strength within FSA forces and the revolutionary councils that drive the revolution do not, however, assure an end to the conflict any time soon. And a possible alternative political structure coming either from a power-sharing agreement crafted by the Action Group for Syria, or competition for power from within a successful rebel leadership would also not promise a quick end to the crisis either, experts say.

“We don’t talk in terms of an Arab Spring in Syria, anyway,” said Nerguizian. “It was always going to be a decade.”