Syrian President Bashar Assad said he expects that major military operations in Syria will conclude by the end of 2014. Following this, all that will remain will be the need to deal with the ongoing problem of “terrorists.”
The bullish confidence of the Syrian leader followed recent remarks by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who said in a speech that the danger that the Syrian regime could fall has now been averted.
What do such statements reflect? Is the Syrian regime now within realistic sight of a strategic victory in the brutal three-year civil war against the rebellion that rose to challenge it? Or has Assad effectively resigned himself to being the ruler of the around 40 percent of Syrian territory that he currently presides over? First of all, it is worth noting that the two statements, while each expressing optimism, appear to reflect different analytical positions.
Assad is talking about continued progress toward a general defeat of the rebels. Nasrallah is doing what Nasrallah does best – namely, taking the existing difficult reality and painting it in the colors of victory.
Nasrallah’s position is thus more reflective of the actual situation. Assad’s reflects hubris and over-confidence.
The Iran-led regional bloc has indeed scored an impressive achievement in Syria over the last year.
This achievement was crowned with the recent fall of the town of Yabrud, which completed the regime’s re-conquest of the Qalamun mountains area, and effectively sealed the border of Lebanon from the rebels.
The achievement is largely the result of the major mobilization of Iranian and pro-Iranian regional assets that took place from early 2013, in response to the serious rebel advances of late 2012.
The Iranians understood that Assad’s problem was a shortage of loyal combat soldiers. Under the direction of Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani, a new, loyal, sectarian based force – the National Defense Force (NDF) – was created to fill this gap. This, together with the greater number of Hezbollah fighters deployed and the presence of Iraqi Shiite volunteers helped to slow and halt rebel advances. The regime has now completed a limited counter-attack.
This undoubted achievement does not, however, portend the imminent re-conquest of the entirety of Syria by the regime. Rather, it serves to solidify and unite the main regime-controlled areas of the country – namely, the capital city of Damascus and its environs, and the western coastal area. The latter is the ancestral heartland of the Assad family itself and of the Alawi sect from which it springs.
The regime has now established firm control along the highway linking Damascus and the coast. The rebels, subsequent to the fall of Yabrud, launched a counter-attack against the northern border of the regime held enclave, in Latakia province. This attack has made minor progress without in any way endangering the government-controlled area.
But while the regime has demonstrably avoided collapse, the same problems that prevented it since mid-2012 from reimposing effective control over the entirety of Syria still remain.
First of all, it is worth noting that the rebellion too has not collapsed and shows no signs of doing so.
Despite its internecine struggles, and the absence of the kind of centralized, coordinated external aid that the regime enjoys, various rebel and jihadi elements remain firmly in control of the greater part of northern and eastern Syria, and also holds a section of Deraa province in the south.
The Syrian Kurds, meanwhile, are maintaining their control over a large enclave in northeastern Syria, and two smaller areas farther west. These areas are held by the formidable People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which has shown itself willing and able to resist both government and rebel/jihadi forces when required.
The Kurds are currently engaged in a ferocious warwithin- the-war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group. The latter, the most brutal of the jihadi militias in Syria, is trying to force its way into the Kurdish held Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) area in northern- central Syria. So far, the YPG has repulsed the ISIS attacks.
Secondly, despite the establishment of the NDF and the presence of Hezbollah and other militias, the regime still does not have the manpower to effectively control these areas, and it knows it. It’s for this reason that Assad has avoided making any major incursion into the rebel heartland since his strategic retreat from the north in the summer of 2012.
When Qusayr fell to Hezbollah fighters last June, pro-regime mouthpieces began to crow that rebel- controlled eastern Aleppo would be next, and that the regime would then roll up the rebel-held zones in Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqa provinces.
But no such move was even attempted. The regime preferred to exercise effective control of a smaller area of territory while continuing to proclaim itself the legitimate ruler of all of Syria.
Meanwhile, Bashar Assad’s domination of the skies over Syria has been effectively utilized to prevent the emergence of any properly-governed area in the rebel- controlled zones. This has been achieved through the brutal tactic of mass bombings of civilian areas to cause maximum civilian death and destruction.
So in short, the recent regime achievements, though notable, do not represent the kind of game-changing development that could presage an end to the long stalemate in the Syrian civil war and the beginning of a general rout of the rebels and a final decision in the war in favor of the Assads.
Rather, they represent the consolidation by the regime of its area of control and the ending of any immediate danger to it.
These achievements should be placed against the recent rebel offensives into northern Latakia and the presence of US-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles on the southern Idlib battlefield, suggesting the US may be in the process of increasing its provision of weaponry to the rebels in terms of both quality and quantity.
Assad is inclined to boasting, and the regime-controlled parts of Syria are due this year to witness the farce of a “presidential election,” which will no doubt see the dictator returned to power by his grateful people with a huge majority.
The dictator has, nevertheless, managed to stave off the prospect of imminent defeat. The result is not an imminent victory, but rather the de facto partition of Syria into ethnic and sectarian enclaves.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.