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.