Global Insight

December 20, 2012 3:13 pm

Balance of military power shifts in Syria

Pressures on Assad offer chance to test diplomatic prospects
Free Syrian Army©Reuters

It was about time the Syrian regime and those who back it recognised reality.

Nearly two years into the most violent crisis of the Arab awakening, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov conceded this month that an opposition victory could not be ruled out. A few days later, it was the turn of Farouq al-Sharaa, the Syrian vice-president, to cast doubt on a military solution and call for an empowered national unity government.

The shifting balance on the ground is impossible to ignore. Despite President Bashar al-Assad’s vast military superiority, Syria’s rebels have made significant gains, seizing military bases – together with more sophisticated weaponry – and forcing the air force to reduce its bombings of northern areas under opposition control.

The regime lost much of the countryside long ago. Now its cities too are threatened, with half of Aleppo in rebel hands, and a new offensive just launched to seize Hama.

Fighting in the capital Damascus has also intensified, amid forecasts that a bloody battle for control of the city is heating up.

To be sure, the regime still has important military assets. It can fight on and wreak more destruction, but it cannot win or subdue the rebellion.

Diplomats estimate that the regime has regrouped as many as 80,000 of its best trained forces in and around Damascus (compared to just a few thousand inserted by the rebels so far). It also still has massive land artillery capability, in addition to the air force and an arsenal of chemical weapons that remains a terrifying last resort.

Predictions of imminent regime collapse might be overstated. But diplomats and analysts say the mounting pressures on Mr Assad present a new opportunity to test the diplomatic prospects.

For months, western powers sympathetic to the opposition (even if not responding to dissidents’ calls for military support) have been waiting for the moment when the regime feels sufficiently cornered to sue for peace. But although Damascus and Moscow appear to see that the moment is approaching, the parameters of a deal are still unclear and its viability doubtful.

Salman Sheikh, a former UN diplomat now director of the Brookings Doha Centre, says the sticking point remains the fate of Mr Assad. The Russians are flying trial balloons, he argues, but still talking about elections in which the Syrian leader would stand. The opposition and its supporters, on the other hand, see his departure as the prerequisite for a political transition.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, said on Thursday that the fate of Mr Assad is not what preoccupies him. Moscow’s concern, he insisted, was to see an agreement on what happens next before any change in the current order.

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The necessity of an internationally-backed Syrian understanding is all the more urgent today to prevent what many analysts warn could be the fragmentation of the country in the post-Assad era.

“It has gone beyond the issue of Bashar,” says Samir al-Taqi, a former Syrian government adviser who is now a dissident based in Dubai. “There is a possibility that the situation gets out of everyone’s hands. What happens after Bashar is gone is important in terms of who will listen to whom and who are the forces that can be worked with.”

Without a political understanding backed by regional and international powers, elite troops, overwhelmingly drawn from the same minority Alawite community as the Assad family, would continue to protect themselves and their areas long after their leader is gone, says Mr al-Taqi.

On the other side are a collection of rebel factions that hold different visions of the future. The most fearless and disciplined military force among them is Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadi group the US accuses of being an affiliate of al-Qaeda, and whose leaders want to establish a state based on strict Islamic principles.

Between the rebels and the regime are millions of Syrians who are desperate for the suffering and destruction to end and are likely to be growing tired of both sides in the conflict.

Mr Salman agrees that Syria’s future could be one where militants and warlords control patches of territory, with no central authority. “There’s still an opportunity for a big power understanding if Russians and others are willing to throw Assad under the bus but every day that goes by makes that transition all the more difficult,” he says.

“It’s in everyone’s interest that we start a transition that establishes some order.”

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