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Battle for Damascus Begins

If the capital falls, Bashar Assad will effectively lose any claim to be the ruler of Syria. Instead, he (or perhaps another senior Alawi figure) will become the leader of a particularly well-armed sectarian militia.

This militia will then seek to defend its heartland in the west. The Sunni rebels, meanwhile, will seek to reconquer and destroy the Alawi enclave. They will be faced with a similar task in the Kurdish north east of the country.

So the Assad regime’s support base is shrinking down to its sectarian core -- namely, the 12% Alawi minority from which the ruling family comes.

This narrow base has proved the regime’s Achilles heel. It has forced the regime to abandon large swathes of the country and construct ever narrower defensive lines, which it has the manpower to defend.

But the ethnic nature of the regime’s support means that rather than simply melting away, its base has narrowed down to a hard, solid essence. The men remaining with Assad are united not just by coercion, but by fear of what is in store for themselves and their families should the Sunni Islamism of the rebels triumph.

They will fight for every inch of ground.  They may succeed in holding the center of Damascus for quite a while yet. But even when the city falls, this will not mean the end of their war.

Will the regime use its extensive chemical weapons capacity, a part of which was recently reported to have been prepared for use? Assad has one of the most substantial CW capabilities in the world.  This includes Sarin, mustard gas, hydrogen cyanide and probably the powerful VX nerve gas.

But if the above analysis is correct, the use of this capability in the immediate future  is very unlikely.

That is because the loss of Damascus for the Assad regime should not be seen as analogous to the conquest of Berlin by Marshal Zhukov’s troops in 1945.  The Assad regime, at heart, was and is a sectarian, not an ideological regime. The task of defending the Alawis does not end with the loss of the capital city.  So the "Samson option" makes no sense, in this context.

The real danger, however, is that these arms could fall into the hands of Islamist terror groups engaging in the Syrian civil war with Assad or against him, as the regime’s control over the country slips.

So despite rebel gains, the Syrian civil war appears to be nowhere near its end. And if the capital falls, the war may enter a new phase -- of conflict between rival militias representing the country’s major ethnic groups.