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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Syria: Has the Assad Regime Reached the Terminal Phase?

Filed under: Syria

Assad Still Controls the Big Cities

Based on events on the ground, one can safely state that the Syrian regime is steadily losing ground to rebel forces, since as much as 60 to 70 percent of the territory has fallen into their hands.

Yet, while rebel forces have seized parts of Aleppo and are fighting on the outskirts of Damascus, even cutting, at times, the main road to the city’s international airport, most of the main bastions of the Syrian regime, including the bulk of the big cities, are still in Assad’s hands. The Syrian army is still fighting like a united force and the main institutions of the regime are still functioning. Objectively speaking, even though there have been defections from the Syrian ruling elite, the main corps of the body politic is still loyal to Assad and is aligned behind him.

Assad’s military and security establishment suffered a significant blow when five of its top military and security brass were killed in an explosion inside what should have been one of the most protected offices in the country. However, Assad’s swift reaction in appointing their successors and his resolve to continue the war against the rebellion have proved that the Syrian regime still has sizeable strength which has not yet been subdued.

In other words, the battle is yet to be won by the rebels, though Assad does not seem to have enough forces to quell the rebellion against his regime.

Syrian Vice President: Regime Cannot Defeat Rebels

At this point a sort of balance has been established between the two fighting camps. Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa, a former foreign minister, recently admitted that the war against the rebel forces cannot be won and a negotiated solution should be sought. 

Yet President Bashar Assad’s inner circle, led by his brother, Maher, commander of the Syrian Army’s Fourth Division, along with some of the Alawite elites, strongly believe that the regime should keep on fighting. Among the senior Alawite officers there is an understanding that if Assad goes, there will be a bloodbath against the Alawites. This group is pressing Assad to fight on.

This stalemate can be overcome only if some new element is injected on the ground, such as intervention by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards or new fighting legions from Hizbullah. Was Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah hinting at this possibility in his recent declaration that one may be surprised by the outcome of the war in Syria?

Another element of change could be the dramatic introduction of new weaponry against rebel concentrations (such as incendiary ammunition like phosphorous artillery in lieu of chemical weapons) and changes in the choice of targets. While the rebels have chosen to attack military installations, Assad forces have chosen to strike at civilian concentrations with deadly weapons (Scud missiles) and employ heavy aerial bombardment (on the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus).

On the rebel side, the change could occur if the rebels receive upgraded weaponry in addition to intelligence assistance from the U.S., UK and France. Perhaps a detachment of expeditionary Arab forces (such as Qatar sent to Libya) may arrive when the rebels achieve greater control of the territory in their hands. There could be active intervention by Turkish forces in the Alexandretta area bordering Turkey on the Mediterranean. Or Moscow could have a sudden change of heart towards the Assad regime, parallel to a massive departure of Russian military personnel from Syria. Perhaps the rebels will succeed in killing Bashar Assad himself.

Why Assad Survives

But before burying the Assad regime and prophesizing that it is only a matter of days or weeks before Assad disappears, it is essential to understand the reasons for his survival until now:

Forty years of Alawite dominance in Syrian politics have created strong bonds and coalitions between the Alawite ruling elite and political forces which see their fate linked to the demise of Assad, such as the Christian, Druze, and Assyrian minorities as well as some Sunnite elites. Since the beginning of the civil war there have been almost no defections from these groups.

The Alawite community is well aware that it is fighting not only for political supremacy, but mainly for its very survival. The community is fully conscious that if the regime crumbles and a Sunni-led coalition takes the reins of power, much of the Alawite community may be in physical danger. This is why at this point the Alawites cannot compromise. They see no other choice but to fight to the death. One possibility is to entrench regime supporters in the Alawite enclave in the northwest along the Mediterranean coast, bordering Turkey in the north and Lebanon in the south. In this area the Alawites could try to survive in the new political environment, which could mean a continuation of the war.

Working in favor of the regime’s survival are the divisions within the opposition.  The Syrian National Council (SNC), headed at first by Burhan Ghalioun and later by the Christian George Sabra, never had real roots in Syria. Most of its members have lived outside Syria for decades and they do not appeal to the public as the real opposition. It took the American administration more than a year to bring a change in this representation when at the end of November 2012 the National Coalition came into being, headed by Moaz al-Khatib, a former geologist and imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. The National Coalition was immediately recognized by France, the UK, the Gulf states, and the U.S. However, this structure is purely political.

While it is supposed to coordinate the fighting factions under the Free Syrian Army (FSA), in fact the National Coalition is for the time being more of an administrative body than a ruling one. Unlike the FSA, which is currently headquartered in Idlib inside sovereign Syrian territory, the National Coalition is headquartered in Cairo, which affects its independent identity. The complexity of the situation is further amplified by the presence of major Islamic forces in the coalition. The SNC is dominated by the Muslim Brothers, who hijacked the rebellions in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. While recognizing the National Coalition as the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people, Washington has listed Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the main components of the armed opposition to Assad, as a terrorist group with al-Qaeda connections.

The rebel Free Syrian Army has been the spearhead of the rebellion since the beginning. Even though it is headed by a “secular” officer, Colonel Riad al-Ass’ad, its main contingent is jihadist. As much as two-thirds of its forces are considered to be Islamic jihadists who are striving to establish an Islamic state in Syria. During the fighting in Homs, Walid al-Boustani proclaimed himself as the Emir of Homs and undertook ethnic cleansing by deporting more than 10,000 Christians who lived in the city, before being killed by “secular” elements of the FSA.

FSA leaders have long been critical of the “comfortable involvement” of the political leadership far from the battlefield. In fact, no real agreement exists between the two arms of the Syrian rebellion as to who will lead in case Assad steps down or disappears from the scene. The FSA will probably claim to lead the country and align it according to Islamic rules. Until this happens, the FSA is continuing to suffer from a lack of organization and weapons, and behaves as a guerilla force. Even though it is organized in brigades, most of them count no more than 300 combatants, which is the largest field formation they have succeeded in deploying on the ground. In every encounter with the regular forces loyal to Assad, the FSA has suffered defeat with high casualties.

In order not to overtax its resources, the Syrian army has chosen to abandon a large part of the country, leaving it to the FSA. However, the main cities still remain in the hands of the regime, and the loyalist Syrian army has foiled every attempt to gain control of them. In fact, as long as the FSA remains unable to confront the army and win the urban war, the situation will not dramatically change in favor of the rebels.

Since the beginning of the conflict, support of the Assad regime by Russia and China has served as an active shield against all attempts by the West to force a political solution on Syria through a decision by the UN Security Council, similar to the ones in Kosovo, Libya, and Afghanistan. It is clear that without a change in the Russian attitude, the ability of the West to impose a military solution will be limited, and this helps to extend the fragile life of the Assad regime. The creation of “save havens” protected by a no-fly zone will certainly help the FSA to organize and better wage its war against the loyalists. Still, this will not be enough to topple the Assad regime.

Iran and Hizbullah have been providing the Syrian regime with assistance to quell the rebellion. Iran has mainly provided intelligence tools and equipment, while Hizbullah has sent its troops into Syrian territory in the Homs area, opposite northeastern Lebanon. No doubt these two allies understand that the Tehran-Syria-Hizbullah axis is at stake, and they are doing everything in their power to maintain Assad’s position. If the situation worsens, we may see expeditionary forces from both Iran and Lebanon pour into Syria to fight alongside the loyalists against the rebel forces.

Finally, neither the West nor Israel is looking for another Libya in the Middle East. Given the political weakness of the opposition, the possible disintegration of the Syrian regime into a group of small “emirates,” or its transformation into a new, Iranian-style, extreme Sunni dictatorship, are options that cast a shadow on the future. Until a more attractive alternative is created, the Assad regime will continue to look to many Syrians as the lesser evil in an impossible situation.

A change in the Syrian regime will result in a shock wave which could create a new alignment of forces in the Middle East. Russia, the West, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, and even the Palestinians will be on the receiving end of this shock wave. Some of these parties will have to cope with problems of severe instability (Lebanon and Jordan) that could endanger their political unity. Some will have to deal with new political entities that may arise in the aftermath of the death of the Alawite regime (Turkey and Iran will face new calls for a Kurdistan). Some will look for new anchors in the area (Russia) and some (Israel and the U.S.) will have to face the uncertainties of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of irresponsible extremist Islamic elements and other illegitimate offshoots of the Syrian civil war.

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Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.