By Afro-Middle East Centre
Following recent rebel advances and regime defeats in Syria, speculation has been rife among commentators and some among the opposition about whether this represents the imminent demise of the Syrian regime. Regime losses since the end of March, including the complete loss of a second major city (Raqqa is already under opposition control), Idlib, along with the ceding of crucial strategic sites such as Jisr al-Shughur in the north, and, in the south, Busra al-Sham and the Nasib border crossing into Jordan.
There are multiple intersecting factors that influence this dynamic, and the situation in Syria is undoubtedly very complex; nevertheless, the Syrian regime has displayed remarkable resilience, consistently disproving predictions over the past four years about its collapse. This is not to suggest that the regime has not suffered significant losses; it has, in various parts of the country. Indeed, its losses make the cantonisation of Syria manifest, with large parts of the eastern countryside, including Raqqa, indefinitely beyond the reach of the government. The government’s hold over the country’s second largest city, Aleppo, is also shaky. Thus, along with the survival of the regime there is a massive decrease in its ability to rule over the entirety of Syria. This, however, is not sufficient evidence to suggest that the Syrian regime is about to meet the same fate that visited Libya’s Gaddafi regime in 2011.
The primary factor fuelling suggestions that the Syrian government might be on its last legs is the recent series of victories achieved by, and the decrease of infighting between, anti-Asad elements. The past few months have not only seen rebel groups cooperating with each other and coordinating their activities to a much greater degree than before, but have also been characterised by their state sponsors in the region – Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – coordinating between themselves much more effectively.
But while they might all be opposing Asad, this level of increased cooperation between the rebels and between regional powers is a recent phenomenon, and to expect that it will easily persist into the distant future is a lot to ask for. There are various reasons for such caution. First, at the regional level, the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have come to a tacit agreement to put aside their disagreements, such as those over their respective attitudes towards the Muslim Brotherhood (or, more broadly, ‘republican Islamism’), in order to confront the common threat that they see emanating from Iran, and especially in light of a potential Iran-USA nuclear deal. However, their ability to temporarily ignore their differences does not mean that they have all changed their views entirely. For example, while Qatar might have decreased its support for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) – at least publicly, Turkey, due to the intellectual and ideological foundations of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), will not entirely turn withdraw its support for the Brotherhood, and while Saudi Arabia under King Salman has indicated a shift in attitudes towards the MB, it is unlikely to go beyond tolerating the Islamist movement.
Second, and more important, is that although agreements between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have resulted in increased logistical and financial support for the rebels, and facilitated reconciliation of previously antipathetic factions, this does not amount to the kind of sustained commitment that would be required to entirely remove the Asad regime. Such a commitment would entail, at the very least, the establishment of a no-fly zone in the northern and/or southern zones of the country, and possibly even a ground invasion by foreign (most likely Turkish) troops. There are no indications that these measures can realistically be expected to be implemented.
The Syrian Arab Army has consistently enjoyed an upper hand over the rebels because of its superior airpower. All else being equal, the army, regardless of its low morale, defections and infighting, cannot be defeated by the irregular militias that the rebels present. Therefore, despite losing many bases to the rebels, the Syrian army can continue the battle for a long time. In fact, if the survival of the regime is measured on the basis of its control of Damascus and a few other crucial locations (such as the Latakia), the loss of territory represents a strategic gain for the army in that it is now responsible for defending a smaller part of Syria than before. It is for this reason that, in order decisively to defeat the Asad government, the rebels need air support from the anti-Asad regional coalition represented by Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, if not an outright invasion on their behalf.
However, neither the establishment of such a no-fly zone nor the possibility of an armed intervention by these states is imminently realistic. Recent talk suggesting Turkish plans for a ground incursion into Syria have proven to be baseless rumours that were spread by the Turkish opposition, probably in order to cast aspersions on the AKP before the upcoming 7 June general election. Similarly, the USA has backed away from talk of a no-fly zone or a safe haven inside Syria, which makes the required UN approval for such a mission a guaranteed impossibility, and this before the certain vetoing of any such proposal by Russia at the UN Security Council.
As serious an issue as the capacity of the regime is the question of the likelihood of the persistence of the unity of rebel groups, and their resisting the temptation to fight each other when they are in a position to govern some territory – as opposed to just fighting for control over it. The victories in Idlib and surrounding areas are recent, about a month old, and do not necessarily point to the viability of the rebels as a ruling coalition. Such a determination requires observation of how the rebels fare when not immediately confronted by regime forces. For now, the rebels are showing remarkable ability to cooperate in confronting a common enemy, with members of the Islamic State group (IS), which broke away from al-Qa’ida, fighting alongside al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhah al-Nusra (JN) along the Syria-Lebanon Syria-Lebanon border and in the Yarmouk refugee camp. But this also suggests that the armed opposition, given their diverse allegiances and ideologies, will find themselves pitted against each other, or at least required to compromise with each other, when they have to find common ground beyond their animosity towards the regime. Remembering past experiences of a similar sort, such as the infighting between IS and JN, or the decimation of Harakat Hazm at the hands of JN, does not proffer much confidence in the ability of the rebels to abstain from disintegrating from within.
Factors internal to the regime
Care must, however, be taken not to exaggerate the significance of the above factors. Even if the rebels and their governmental allies are incapable of dislodging the Asad regime, it does not follow that the Syrian government could not crumble due to other reasons, such as internal contradictions that plague it. Consider, for example, that the regime is having difficulty recruiting for its non-regular militias and paramilitary forces. There are also reports that the regime is plagued by disagreements between its different security officials and organisations, at least one of which might have led to the killing of a high ranking official, Rustum Ghazaleh, the head of the political security directorate, by another, Rafiq Shehadeh, the head of the military intelligence directorate. Further, there are reports that some regime representatives are unhappy with the leadership of Iranian commanders on the Syrian battlefield, which might not only have resulted in infighting and killings, but might also be the reason behind reports of an alleged coup planned by Asad’s intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk
A crucial factor in this regard is the financial support that the regime receives from Iran. Some reports suggest that the Iranian government has approved a one billion dollar credit line to keep the Syrian regime afloat. If this turns out to be untrue, and the Iranians change their minds about support for the Asad government, then, in light of the massive economic problems Syrians are confronted with, it is likely that at least a few high ranking personalities within the regime will seek an exit strategy, such as exile or a negotiated settlement with the rebels and their state partners, including immunity from prosecution.
Such a development will surely cause the regime to fracture from within, but this possibility does not seem very likely at the moment. Iran has given no indication that it is contemplating abandoning Asad. Indeed, given Iran’s strategic interests in Lebanon in relation to Hizbullah, and the increasingly sectarian flavour that the Syrian conflict has taken, it would be inexplicable for Iran to radically change its position on Syria. The suggestion by some commentators that the USA and its partners might push Iran to trade Asad for a nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions are a misreading of the Iranian commitment to Syria and how Iran views the current balance of forces. If they were was pressing Iran to end support for Asad, US allies in the region would know about such a demand. The fact that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have attempted to assert their independence from a US strategy on the Middle East, especially in Yemen, suggests that their reading of the Iran-USA negotiations is that these will not deliver on Syria.
The Syrian government, then, is unlikely to collapse in the near future. It is undeniable that the regime has suffered some heavy losses, and it is not in the same confident position that it was a year ago. But that does not mean that the regime cannot continue limping into the future. Neither the recent rebel victories and the role of their external backers, nor the health of the regime and the support offered by its sponsors are sufficient pointers towards regime collapse.