Syria: War Over the Ruins

The beleaguered situation of the Assad regime in Syria means that any retaliation to the recent strike by the Israeli Air Force is unlikely. Indeed, the regime’s unusual decision to publicize its own version of these events indicates that it figures (probably correctly) that it can score a somewhat meager propaganda victory by portraying itself as the hapless target of the Zionists’ attentions.

But while Assad’s brutal regime may be defenseless against a modern air force, it is performing rather better against the divided and poorly equipped forces of the two-year-old insurgency against it. Indeed, there are no signs at all of the long-predicted collapse of the regime. Rather, the dictatorship is metamorphosing into just the best equipped of a multitude of sides in a multi-sided civil war.

Six months after the rebels declared the beginning of the battle for Damascus, the lines dividing the sides in the Syrian civil war remain static.

The regime has ceded the greater part of the north of the country, which is now parceled out between various rebel militias (with a de facto Kurdish enclave in the northeast).

The rebel forces themselves are deeply divided. A number of internecine killings have taken place — such as the blood feud that appears to have opened up between the Islamist Farouk Brigade and the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra.

Fighting is also taking place between Islamist Arabs and secular Kurds in the areas vacated by the regime. On January 16, Islamist fighters supported by Turkey made the second of their attempts to break into the Kurdish-dominated area. Accompanied by four captured T-55 tanks, they entered the town of Sere Kaniyah (known in Arabic as Ras al-Ain) and clashed with local Kurdish militia forces there.

By retreating from swathes of territory in the Sunni Arab and Kurdish north of the country, the Assad regime has reduced the lines it must hold. The regime appears determined to defend at all costs the city of Damascus, the majority Alawi western coastal area of Syria, and the roads connecting the two.

Until now, at least, it has succeeded in this goal. Rebel gains in the majority Sunni city of Homs have been thrown back with great brutality. The loss of this city would threaten the highway linking the western coastal area with the capital.

Similarly, while the rebels succeeded in entering part of the southwestern suburbs of Damascus, they have so far been unable to expand their initial gains and have been subjected to ruthless aerial bombing in the areas they captured.

Even in Aleppo in the north, the rebels have failed to complete the conquest of the city — about 40% of which remains under government control. Indeed, the rebels have yet to capture and hold a single one of the country’s large or medium-sized cities. Even Idleb City, in the heart of the rebellion’s northern Sunni Arab heartland, remains under government control.

The current situation indicates that with their present level of armament and organization, the Syrian rebels have no workable strategy for extending themselves into the regime’s strongholds. Perception of this reality may underline the surprising announcement by Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition, of his willingness for dialogue with the dictator over the process of political transformation.

The loyalty of the Syrian Alawis, the cohesion of vital combat units, and — perhaps most importantly — the active and very extensive aid from Russia, Iran, and Hizballah have enabled the Assad regime to stay in existence. The decision of the U.S. and the west to refrain from serious involvement and support for the rebellion is no less responsible for the regime’s survival.

Yet at the same time, the regime clearly has no realistic hope of reconquering the areas it has ceded, which amount to about half of the entirety of the territory of the country. And the evidence suggests that Iran and Hizballah’s prominence in the fight against the rebels has reached such a level that to refer to Assad’s side as the sovereign government of Syria may be outdated.

It may be more accurate to now see the Assad regime as in a process of transforming into merely the best-armed and best-supported militia in a war (or series of wars) being fought over the ruins of Syria. With much of its infrastructure in ruins, and around 70,000 of its people killed, Syria is today a failed state, a geographical rather than a political designation.

The central dividing line of this conflict remains between the mainly rural Sunni Arab rebellion supported by Sunni regional powers such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, and the mainly non-Sunni (Alawi, with Shia and Christian support) element gathered around the civil and military infrastructure that once ruled Syria, now supported and maintained by Iran, Russia and their allies and proxies.

There is no reason to believe that this war is anywhere close to conclusion.