Syria Special: 3 Reasons Why Assad Will Lose The War

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Written in partnership with the University of Birmingham as a Birmingham Brief:


Only months after declaring that President Assad is on the verge of winning Syria’s four-year conflict, mainstream media are announcing that he is on the verge of losing it. The Associated Press suddenly sees the Syrian regime’s “fundamental weaknesses”. The Washington Post replaces Assad’s “upper hand” with a “shift on the ground”. Foreign Policy magazine asks, “Is Bashar al-Assad Finished, for Real, This Time, Again?”

There is good reason for the change in tone. Since the start of the year, rebels have made substantial gains across Syria, especially in the northwest and the south. They not only punished the Assad regime’s attempt to cut off the opposition in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, but killed, wounded, or captured hundreds of Syrian troops and allied Hezbollah, Iranian, and Afghan fighters. A regime offensive south of Damascus was also checked.

In the last six weeks, rebels have taken the provincial capital of Idlib and the key city of Jisr al-Shughour in the northwest, threatening to cut off regime forces in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces from a base of Assad’s power in Latakia in western Syria. In the south, They have claimed the historic town of Busra al-Sham near Jordan and seized the regime’s last crossing on the border.

Assad even acknowledged the defeats for the first time this week, in a rare public appearance: “Some [Syrian forces] are fighting and emerging victorious, and others are fighting and retreating when circumstances necessitate that.”

See Syria Feature: Assad Appears at “Martyrs” Ceremony, Acknowledging Defeats as Well as Claiming Victories

Still, how are we to know the pendulum won’t swing again, with the media just as quick to say a few months from now that Assad has not only survived but is once more “winning”?

Here’s why. While the recent rebel victories have unveiled the regime’s troubles, Assad has been losing this conflict for a long time.

This has not been a sudden collapse such as that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in 2011, but the slow erosion of his authority. As erosion devolves into a crumbling of positions, the President will not soon depart — his elite forces have not yet cracked, and he still holds the capital Damascus and other Syrian cities — but his political demise, if not his death or trial for war crimes, is only a matter of time.

REBELS ASSAD STATUE IDLIB

1. THE MILITARY SITUATION

The “Assad is winning” rested primarily on two advantages: the support of foreign forces — notably those of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and Iranian military advisors and commanders — and his air force.

These not only blunted the initial uprising against Assad but appeared to turn the course of a civil war. Syrian bombs and missiles not only killed tens of thousands of civilians, but also helped ground forces take most of decimated cities like Homs. Hezbollah’s intervention supported the recapture of territory near the Lebanese border and then a 2014 offensive that moved across the Qalamoun region north of Damascus. Iranian-trained Syrian militia filled in the gaps of a weakened Army. “Starve or surrender” sieges near the capital forced some opposition forces to cease fire.

However, in the longer-term, a military can only “win” if it has enough reliable soldiers and local support. The Assad regime struggled to take control of all of Homs, let alone prevail in the divided Aleppo. It could not pacify important Damascus suburbs where leading rebel factions were based. It made little headway in the countryside, even near cities that it ruled.

Once rebels were able to overcome problems of coordination, to check the threat of the Islamic State, and — perhaps most importantly — obtain decent weapons, they could turn the tide. That is what has happened since January. Finally giving up on US support, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have led an effort to supply the rebels. Factions — from the Free Syrian Army to the Islamic Front bloc to the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra — have overcome long-running disputes to establish effective commands and operations rooms. Tens of thousands of fighters have been mobilized for offensives.

The Syrian air force can retaliate for losses of territory, doing so near Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour recently with barrel bombs and even the chemical weapons of chlorine canisters. However, the bombing alone cannot reclaim that territory. The Syrian military is having problems putting enough men on the battlefield — reports of forced conscription are mounting — and some of its best units are trapped south of Idlib. Hezbollah, after suffering losses, is refusing to provide fighters for the north, and Iran also appears to be withdrawing from that front.

APTOPIX Mideast Syria

2. THE POLITICAL SITUATION

Ever since the US refused to intervene following the regime’s chemical weapons attacks of August 2013, Assad’s strategy has been based on a matching of an improved military position with international recognition of his stay in power. That in turn rested on the backing of his key allies, Russia and Iran.

The Russians, initially working with the US, convened a “Geneva II” conference in early 2014 to bring together representatives of the regime and some of the Syrian opposition. Unsurprisingly, those talks produced little but they spun the illusion of an Assad willing to reach a political resolution while an unreasonable opposition refused. So Russia held more shows of discussions, including a February conference in Moscow.

At the same time, Assad got unexpected support from the UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, who proposed a “freeze” on fighting in Aleppo city. If the opposition accepted, the regime could pause for breath in the city while bombing and besieging the rest of northwest Syria and other areas of the country. If the opposition refused, Assad could call on the international community to recognize his rule as the only reasonable option, especially if he could play upon the menace of the Islamic State.

But the tactics have not worked. The Russian conferences have not led other countries, especially the US, to endorse Assad. De Mistura’s freeze proposal has collapsed, with no political aftershock, and his attempt for a “Geneva 3” conference has stalled even before it began.

If the military situation was favorable, Russia and Iran could consider yet another political initiative. However, with the battlefield — featuring a rebel movement backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar — overtaking them, Moscow and Tehran may now have to think about their support for Assad. They will try to keep their favored Syrian system in place, but that may not require Bashar as its leader.

3. THE ECONOMIC SITUATION

Still, Assad may be able to hold out against advancing rebels and the hesitancy of his foreign supporters. What he will not survive is the collapse of the Syrian economy.

The formula is that the President, playing up the threat of “terrorists” and assisted by the spectre of the Islamic State and the abuses of a faction such as Jabhat al-Nusra, can always rely on supporters from among his Alawite community and other groups who fear an “extremist” post-Assad Syria. Thus, even as he loses much of the country, he will hold Damascus, cities such as Homs, and the power bases of Latakia and Tartous in the west.

That may well be true politically, but a President’s supporters have to eat and keep themselves warm. As shortages of food and essential goods become more serious, prices are spiraling. The average monthly salary of a Damascus worker now buys only 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of bananas or 5 kilos (11 pounds) of beef, let alone pay a rent or mortgage or fuel costs.

The Syrian currency is weakening rapidly. At 50:1 vs. the US dollar before the conflict, it is now over 300:1 on the unofficial market. Despite official denials, foreign reserves are draining away. With more than $200 billion lost by the end of 2014 and with production crippled — oil and gas output has fallen more than 95% — there is no prospect of recovery.

Assad has survived the crisis so far with Iran’s economic assistance, notably a $3.6 billion line of credit extended in July 2013. However, with the Iranians facing their own economic difficulties, six months of Syrian efforts have not persuaded Tehran to renew the line. This week, the Governor of Syria’s Central Bank said the money was coming — the Iranians said nothing.

THE END

It is natural to look for the quick, dramatic end to a conflict. So “Assad is falling” (2012) is replaced by “Assad is winning” (2013/14) by “Assad may be losing” (2015).

However, after the initial uprising was met by the regime’s armed forces, this became a civil war of attrition. The opposition and rebels have been far from certain victors: they have had to confront Assad’s barrel bombs and chemical weapons, the reluctance of international actors like the US, and their own internal divisions.

Yet the reality has always been that, unless the Syrian military could deliver a knockout blow, the rebels can put more men on the battlefield than the regime can. The longer that the conflict grinds on, the greater that advantage. It will not produce a final military victory, but it will prevent Assad from declaring victory.

And then the President will have to face his judgement beyond the battlefield: most of “his people” — the 50% of Syrians who have not yet been displaced, as well as those who have — not being able to maintain even a basic existence.

In Assad’s plea at the Martyrs Day ceremony this week, there was flicker of recognition of this reality, even as he tried to forestall it:

When one is talking about a war as vicious as the one taking place in Syria, then this involves thousands of battles, and it’s natural for this type of battles with the numbers and conditions involved in them to have them shift between attack and defense, wins and losses, and ups and downs, but the important thing is for faith in the inevitability of victory to remain unchanging.

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52 COMMENTS

    • Actually that looks at things too much from one side. JAN needs the help of moderate rebels as much as the moderates need JAN. The vacumn created by Obama’s MIA act has been filled. It was natural. It was inevitable. But neither the president or the incompetents he most relied on could see the obvious coming. Those with strategic foresight were shown the door or driven out in frustration with Obama’s tin ear.

      By staying out of it, catering to Iran, promising Khamenei he’d keep hands off Assad and and especially by avoiding an NFZ, The Enabler radicalized the rebels and created this need for JAN. That’s one reason the Arab-Turkish intervention is a good thing. It makes the rebels less dependent on JAN whereas Obama the Enabler made them more dependent.

      By his actions, the Enabler maximized death and destruction is Syria and has spread the same to nearby countries. There’s no way this would have happened had a strategical short-sighted president behaved otherwise. None of this will do much for the resumes of his long time, incompetent advisors. Obama’s endless betrayals and hesitation, his repeated “Screw Driver in the Back Act” has created vast ill will toward the West and especially the USA which radicals can exploit, using the internet to encourage attacks in the USA and Europe.

      In sum, the Enabler could not have done worse if he set out to do so. Assad and & Pals may be doing the actual bomb dropping, torture, mass rapes, etc. Putin and Iran might be providing the weapons and financing volunteers but Obama’s role was essential for all this to happen.. The Bad Guys had no chance of pulling it off without him. None. The power he could have exerted but chose to withhold would have counterbalanced them all. In fact, they counted on Obama and obviously took his nature into account in all plans. Every move was predicated on the assumption that Obama would roll over like a beaten dog.

  1. You write utter nonsense. You English are the war criminals violating every word of the United Nations Charter, especially the part in the first chapter about trying to oust sitting presidents of member nations. This is to be expected for a race that brought nothing but perversion and misery to all peoples around he world. Our nephews are in the Syrian Army and they are real Syrians, not like you, Lucas, a teacher of American Studies at some Third World school in Birmingham – and they tell a different story on the ground. And, yet, despite your pathological lying, the evidence is that the Syrian Army has blunted all attacks across the Qalamoon; surrounded Aleppo completely; squelched all attacks in Latakia; regained ground in Dayr El-Zor; pummeled the Jordanian front into dust – and all that without recourse to helping savages and cannibals like your allies in Alqaeda. Iran and Russia will soon be sending in more than just ammunition. I look forward to seeing escaping terrorists going back to your stinking island to rappel up and down your white cliffs. What an idiot you are. Who but an English moron would openly support Alqaeda?

    • I’m sorry that your nephews fight for a mass murderer and a war criminal. Perhaps one day they will develop some morals and principles.

      • You enlisted in the world most murderous machine that has slaughtered millions of innocents since WW2. My Lai, Kevin?

        • I wasn’t even born when My Lai happened, but nice try. I never fought for a tyrant who gasses women and children, who barrel bombs heavily populated civilian areas, who tortures his own people, etc. I could go on and on about the abuses of your hero. I can understand your affection for such a person given the fact that Iran and their stooges would support satan himself if it helped their imperialistic designs on the middle east.

        • Actually I joined a service that removed a similar tyrant in Saddam Hussein(someone Iran failed miserably in doing) and fought the thugs who now call themselves IS while Iran and their puppet Assad were devising fiendish ways to kill those very troops who were fighting the terrorists. When abuses are committed those individuals are prosecuted and the abuses are acknowledged. Unlike Iran and Syria, who try to cover them up and pretend they never happened like the cowards that they are.

          • Great point Kevin many overlook the fact that Syria and Iran did everything they could to sabotage the invasion and fan the flames as they if it was a success like the German, Falklands and Panama invasions they would be next, after Gaddaffy-Duck. Since unlike North Korea they don’t have China to bail them out.

        • “You enlisted in the world most murderous machine …”

          He joined the Russian military?

          did he serve in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia, or Ukraine?

    • Who exactly is “our nephews”? Since you’re talking to Scott that implies that you and him are brothers and the nephews come from your other brother(s) and sister(s). If that’s true I can bet who’s getting the bigger piece of the pie in your parents will.
      Speaking of the Jordan front do you remember that time in the 1960s when you Baathist tried to help Black September conquer Jordan and they kicked your Assad?

    • @Ziad,

      Although I always enjoy hearing about your many, many nephews, why no fancy vocabulary in your folderol today? I was using your posts as a word-a-day calender for a while there.

    • I’ve got a Grandmother in Wolverhampton area (Near to Birmingham). I haven’t made the trip in a very long time but didn’t realize the area became Third World. Also what happened to Birmingham University? Did they add pole dancing to the curriculum? It used to be quite highly regarded as I remember :)

      I’d quite like to go and visit again and rappel down those stinking white cliffs as Ziad suggested.

    • Hope your “nephews” die so you can move on with your pathetic life, which you are probably living in the west you hypocritical imbecile

      But thanks for coming back to write and make everyone laugh LOL
      Qalamoun will be another Qusayr probably, and all it will do is make the Sunnis even more angry and come back to fight in bigger numbers. Since 2013 Qusayr, all of the forces against Assad have increased by a multiple of 5x. The same would happen from Qalamoun. Unless Hezbollah is destroyed once and for all.

      Iran and Russia wont last when the price of oil falls to $5 dollars also. Let them keep on at it LOL

      The tools in the basket to deal with Assad, Iran, and Russia are endless.. and time is not on Assads side. The attrition over time is enough to finish him and his whole crew.

      :)

      • Ziad Abu Fadel
        I been watching your words four years, always telling the same lies. but the reality is that Assad and his dogs war criminals are not going to win the war

        • What happen now mister?who is winning this war?still sure that the terrorists rebels will be victorious lol…you were wrong…they are losing and it s game over for them…

  2. This time 2 years ago, the rebels seized the provincial capital Raqqa. It was subsequently followed by advance after advance by the Syrian army. Talking of the “beginning of the end” is idiotic.

    • 2015 is not 2013. The situation has changed and, like Scott said, if Assad is not beaten militarily, he will be beaten by the total collapse of the Syrian economy.

    • Advance after advance is over selling it. They advanced in some areas and lost ground in others.

      But their advances were due to foreign support, and they took a lot of casualties.

      In a very real way this is the beginning of the end , even though the end might be a long way off. The regime cannot prevail in a long running war of attrition. It needed a quick decisive victory. It didn’t get it.

      Now it either signs a political deal ending the Assad familys hold on power, or it gets ground into dust.

  3. A superb summary. Thank you, Scott. Now it’s time for my “told you so” fr regime defenders.

    For a long time I’ve been writing here that the rebel strategy of maximizing regime attrition, taking control of the country and, as their numbers grew, hitting too many places at once would eventually do in this regime. I’ve always favored long term strategy as an avalanche producer, and have never been overwhelmed by short term glitzy developments. Erring on the side of optimism proved way better than the reverse.

    When the regime found itself unable to triumph even with an air monopoly, lots of foreign manpower and endless supplies from Putin, Assad, Maliki and Nassarah, I became more confident of this rather than less competent. Instead of paying excess attention to a few glitzy regime wins what I notices was their pyrrhic nature, even going back to Quysar. Where others saw a great looking house getting better, I saw one riddled by termites.

    Did I not write, many times, that when the regime goes down, things will change fast?

    In the long run, the effects of the rebel strategy in the first paragraph could not help be felt. Victory was inevitable. The only question, one that didn’t have to exist except for Obama’s MIA act was when it came, how powerful would the radical element be. From Day One everything Obama the Enabler did as almost perfectly designed to undermine the moderates and hand the revolution over to the radicals.

    Obama and his advisors became so steeped in inflexible theories and dogma that they lost the common sense that should come naturally to an ordinary human being with reasonable intelligence. No genius required.

    • The sad thing about this whole business is that the Syrians are being fought over by Fascists, Islamists, and the Muslim Brotherhood — none of them people one would want to be ruled by.

      Perhaps some reasonable people will emerge in a couple of generations. In the English Civil War, the country was fought over by monarchists (= Assad), Puritans (= ISIS) and Catholics (= MB); yet by the end of the century things had settled down and the next century was one of (mainly) peace and progress.

    • Wow Scott everything you been saying Scott is now saying, have you military experience before? You seem very good at this thing, did you fight in Korea? Vietnam? By any chance?

  4. Saudi plans pan-opposition meet on Syria after Assad:

    “””In mid-June, Saudi leaders want to unite all – or a vast majority – of Syrian political and military opponents to prepare” for the period after Assad, said Haytham Manna, a veteran opposition figure.

    Manna heads the “Cairo conference,” a gathering of opposition figures living in Syria and abroad.

    A representative from the opposition NC Coalition, which is officially recognized by much of the international community,

    told AFP

    a date was yet to be set for the conference.

    “All of the political and military opposition, inside and outside Syria, would take part,” the representative said.

    “The objective would be to find common points among the different opposition groups and to come up with a road map for the transitional period after Assad’s fall,” added the official.””

    http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2015/May-07/297126-saudi-plans-pan-opposition-meet-on-syria-after-assad-sources.ashx

  5. assad cute face ace four years ago when his ass sitting on the throne of Syria. gaunt now living four years in the depths of his royal palace. in the future wing gallows

      • He looks kind of like Frankenstein’s monster with that Cuboid shaped head, just paint it green and nail in some bolts and wala, he’s even 6 ft tall Frankenstein’s monster.

        Also dose he have testosterone deficiency he can barely grow a moustache, it grows like kind a boy has at late puppetry, this lack of ability to grow full facial hair is really unusual for a middle aged brown skinned man, (no that’s racist to say people who live between Italy to India are generally much hairier than British, French, Chinese, Africans, Koreans etc.)
        Dose anyone think he has some distant African ancestry because his hair looks a bit kinky. If he did grow proper moustache he’d look like Basil Fawlty-who’s hotel managing skill are the same as his war fighting skills.

        Really look at these pictures all 3 of his bros where better looking than him even as a boy he looked weird with those daddy-long-legs, I can tell you Asma didn’t marry him for his appearance. He must of got his looks from his mother who doesn’t public appearances and its for the best but then again daddy had light bulb shaped head. What chance that country full of pretty people happens to taken over by some ugly bugs?
        https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=assad+family&newwindow=1&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=utlLVYKqC4uy7Qbno4HQAg&ved=0CAcQ_AUoAQ&biw=1301&bih=584#imgrc=_

  6. Turkey Officials Confirm Pact With Saudi Arabia To Help Rebels Fighting Syria’s Assad

    “”Under Turkish and Saudi patronage, the rebel advance has undermined a sense that the Assad government is winning the civil war — and demonstrated how the new alliance can yield immediate results.

    The pact was sealed in early March when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Riyadh to meet Saudi’s recently crowned King Salman.””

    “The key is that the Saudis are no longer working against the opposition,” a Turkish official said. He and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.”

    “”Usama Abu Zeid, a legal adviser to the FSA, confirmed that the new coordination between Turkey and Saudi Arabia — as well as Qatar — had facilitated the rebel advance, but said that it not yet led to a new flow of arms. He said rather that the fighters had seized large caches of arms from Syrian government facilities.””

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/07/turkey-saudi-arabia-syria-rebels-pact_n_7232750.html

  7. “President’s supporters have to eat and keep themselves warm” I don’t think eeping warm is hard in Syria its got a lower lattitude than Spain mabey on the Mountins it cold but even then the Nussri Mountians are not that high like Killmonjaro, so there won’t be snow on in the summer.

  8. […] Dans une analyse originale et atypique en deux parties, Alexandre Latsa écrit notamment (extraits adaptés ; voir les liens vers les deux sources en bas de page) : Les récents développements militaires en Syrie ont relancé la machine de guerre médiatique qui affirme que désormais la chute du régime Syrien est proche. Pour Libération, ça craque à Damas, tandis que le JDD se demande si le bastion d'Assad (la côte syrienne et la région de Lattaquié) n'est pas lui aussi sur le point de tomber. Même scénario pour la presse anglo-saxonne, que l'on pense par exemple au « national-interest », ou, à de nombreux sites spécialisés affirmant que la dynamique d'une défaite militaire de l'Etat syrien était engagée. […]

  9. Assad means lion. He is predicted in bible as a 1 st beast with a human heart and wings of eagle. Unfortunately his wings will be cut. There is also predictions of Asad tribe in Islam who wd be on the right path and their palace wd be set on fire.
    God bless all who R fighting terrorists. May the wrath of God come upon them who are training funding and launching terrorists for vicious political goals.

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