Jim Muir recently wrote that “Bashar al Assad and his leadership are there to stay” and explained why. Hassan Nasrallah also declared triumphantly that the danger facing Assad’s regime in Syria has now passed, and Assad himself said that the war has reached a “turning point“. What most people forget as they get carried away by headlines like this is that the number of “turning points” we have had since the start of the revolution leave us all exactly where we started.
A little bit of perspective would not go amiss here. What kind of turning point is it for Assad when he had said exactly the same thing as he “toured” the Baba Amr district in Homs two years ago. That was supposed to be a big deal. And remember that three months into the conflict the popular regime slogan was “it’s over” and yet here we are three years later. The world lampooned President Bush for his “Mission Accomplished” slogan on an aircraft carrier and yet they still take Bashar al Assad seriously. With hindsight we know now that the Syrian revolution was always going to be a near impossible task. It should not have succeeded, and by all rights Assad’s fearsome intelligence services and the cast-iron support of his international allies should have stamped out the Syrian people from the very first days of protest. And they tried, very hard.
The fact is, and I agree with Muir on this, the war of attrition is the only reality we have in Syria. But we shouldn’t confuse the ebbs and flows of the war with turning points, the reality is far more fluid, and it shows us that the water has been creeping closer and closer to Assad’s power base with each successive new tide. He pushes back constantly, and sometimes he pushes back harder when an influx of arms and troops from his allies helps him, but where his soldiers patrol during the day, the rebels come back at night. The old adage, “the situation is critical but not serious” sums up everything about the “Assad is here to stay” mantra.
The Syria rebels continue to consolidate their positions in the north of the country, his stronghold in Western Aleppo came under serious attack only recently, and in spite of their war against the Assad regime the Syrian rebels have also managed to push back the much hated extremist group “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” ISIS. They spent the first months of the year fighting ISIS, then a few weeks ago they took over Kassab and the last stretch of Syrian territory under Assad’s control that borders with Turkey. They are constantly assassinating and killing his commanders. A few days ago they assassinated Major General Salim al Sheikh, and earlier they had killed yet another of his cousins, Hilal al Assad, as they pushed closer into his hinterland.
Assad’s posturing and the buttressing of his image abroad as “here to stay” is really all a matter of timing. As is the case with his Iranian tutors, Assad pays very close attention to the political calendar. Whether it was his forces shelling Hama on the eve of Ramadan in 2011 or today as he “campaigns” in Damascus by visiting Syrians displaced because of the fighting, what Assad is doing is trying to shape perceptions. He wants the world to believe he is there to stay. But if that were true he wouldn’t have to do that. He would simply just crush his opponents and take a walk down the streets of his capital, something that he cannot do. After all the strongest kid on the block does not need to keep telling people what he is. He simply does what he needs to do.
Then there is the matter of the help he’s been getting. It’s true that he has maintained his grip mainly with Hezbullah and Iran’s aid, but to say he is here to stay misses a crucial fact. He is there only as long as there are Iranian and Hezbullah fighters propping him up. When they leave, he leaves. Machiavelli once said that only an invader who has come to live in a country can ever maintain his grip on it. I don’t see the families of Shiite fighters from Hezbullah, Iraq or Iran bringing their families to live in Syria any time soon. In fact recent tensions over coverage by the Hezbullah propaganda channel (Al Manar) and the pro-Assad channel al Mayadeen have highlighted what could be cracks in the alliance with Assad. He is still under immense pressure, domestically and abroad, and he is haemorrhaging soldiers and equipment while his economy is losing billions of dollars a year. He also has to pay at some point for all the support that Iran and Russia are giving him. There comes a time when the tab gets too big for you to get another drink and you must pay the bartender.
What is really holding back real change in Syria hasn’t been Assad’s tenacity or the resolve of his allies, but the weakness and division in the opposition against him. This too has changed in leaps and bounds. People noticed the professionalism of the Syrian National Coalition in Geneva 2 in contrast to the demagoguery and hysteria of the Syrian regime’s entourage. The current head of the coalition, Mr Ahmad al Jarba, has been constantly engaged in quiet diplomacy since then and the Syrian opposition today is certainly not the same confused, disjointed opposition that blinked its eyes into the light three years ago. It is a completely different beast and it has formed, stormed and normed itself into something that is proving far more agile at playing the diplomatic game whilst also strengthening connections with units on the ground. Only recently Jarba toured the front in Lattakia – always a big publicity boost for the Syrian revolution and a matter of hysterics for regime apparatchiks. This is because such visits by heads of the opposition inside Syria, and in areas that Assad only recently controlled, are direct snubs to his power and authority and the Stalin-esque nature of his regime is pathologically incapable of accepting such new realities. So really the slogan “Assad is here to stay” should be read “Assad is here for now” and he’s only keeping the seat warm in Damascus