The view that 2015 has not been a particularly good year for Syrian President Bashar Assad and may get considerably worse has much to recommend it. Within Syria, the government has lost control over most of the province of Idlib in the country’s northwest, including its key towns and military bases. More recently it was almost effortlessly dislodged from Palmyra by the Islamic State (IS) movement. The key cities of Aleppo in the north and Dar’a in the south remain under threat. Increased coordination among Syria’s notoriously fractious armed rebel groups is an important factor in this regard, and reflects improved relations among their sponsors in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Damascus now openly admits it is confronting manpower issues, partly because desertions from its conscript army appear to be a growing problem.
Perhaps most importantly Turkey in July commenced air raids within Syria. Although formally directed at IS and thus signalling Ankara’s belated entry to the US-led anti-IS coalition, many believe the primary purpose of this campaign is to prevent territorial consolidation by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), and lay the basis for a safe haven for opposition fighters and refugees within a “buffer zone” on the Syrian side of the border. Indeed, many view this agenda as the quid pro quo offered by the United States in exchange for its renewed use of Turkey’s Incirlik air force base. Ankara has all but confirmed this interpretation.
On the political front, the United States, Britain and France have dashed Assad’s hopes that they would reconcile with him to meet the growing IS threat, and remain adamantly opposed to granting him renewed international legitimacy in any shape or form. Russia, his main diplomatic ally, has meanwhile been pressing for the formation of a “government of national unity” that would include opposition forces, while seeking to promote a regional anti-IS alliance incorporating Assad and those most determined to unseat him. The Syrian economy, which many believe forms a greater threat to Assad’s survival than rebel groups, is meanwhile in the doldrums and continues to deteriorate.
Presiding over a weakened state, society, military and economy, and with each exhibiting growing signs of fragmentation and in some cases disintegration, one would expect Assad to be as concerned about an imminent tipping point as his opponents are enthusiastic about one. Nonetheless, there is little sign of panic in Damascus, and this is only partly the result of denial and delusion. While Assad’s 26 July 2015 speech was a rare public admission of reality and the difficulties confronting his regime, it would be mistaken to interpret his words as an admission of weakness or motivated by the spectre of imminent defeat.
While territorial losses are always painful, the key issue for Assad is his continued control over Damascus and the coastal region, and secure access to Lebanon. The former remain secure, while the latter has been significantly enhanced by the advances of government forces and their Hizballah allies in the Qalamun region in recent months. Many analysts additionally predict it is only a matter of time before the key rebel stronghold of Zabadani falls to the government.
Similarly, rebel offensives against Dar’a and the government-held sector of Aleppo appear to have for the time being stalled. This is partly on account of renewed rebel infighting, and Assad will have taken particular pleasure in the recent killing and capture of US-trained “Division 30” personnel by the Nusra Front – effectively putting paid to attempts to re-invent this group as a Syrian force free of Al-Qaeda associations. With its constant refrain that the only alternative to Assad is a Taliban regime on steroids, Damascus is convinced the world is belatedly seeing the light.
Turkey’s direct intervention in Syria also poses less of a threat than meets the eye. As the Americans have made clear, there is no agreement to establish a safe zone, much less a no-fly one, on Syrian territory. Nor is Turkey in a position to impose one unilaterally. This additionally means there is little prospect of Turkey engaging in direct hostilities against the Syrian military. And to the extent Turkey weakens the PYD, it is likely to make the Kurds more amenable to restoring the loose alliance maintained with Damascus after a year in which they explored alternatives that seemed more supportive of their ambitions.
Seen from Damascus, Ankara is both its nemesis and a threat in decline. Increasingly constrained by the Americans and NATO, neither of which will sign off on direct intervention to remove Assad or significantly weaken him, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is additionally experiencing problems of his own. He recently failed to win yet another absolute parliamentary majority with which to continue ruling unchallenged, and may face another election this year amidst declining economic performance, domestic unrest, renewed hostilities with Turkey’s Kurdish population, and regional turmoil. By dint of geography and policy Turkey, and Erdogan personally, are seen as the primary sponsors and enablers of the armed rebellion in Syria, and anything that diverts Ankara is therefore considered an achievement.
Assad also does not see much of a political threat on the horizon. Among his main allies only Russia seems keen for change – and then only limited, managed change rather than meaningful transition. Even so, Moscow cannot pursue this agenda beyond what a recalcitrant Damascus is prepared to concede because removing Assad from the equation is likely to lead to regime implosion and the collapse of Moscow’s remaining influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. And while Damascus may be cool to the idea of a regional anti-IS coalition, it has used Russia’s sponsorship of this proposal to recently resume contacts with Saudi Arabia at the highest levels.
The Syrian government appears similarly unperturbed by the Iran nuclear agreement. Unlike many Gulf states, it discounts the possibility this will result in a strategic realignment by its most committed ally, and believes Tehran will if anything be in a stronger position to support it, particularly economically. It also has solid grounds for believing Damascus will become even more valuable to Tehran as the Iranian-Saudi regional proxy conflict continues unabated and perhaps intensifies. With Riyadh reported to have communicated to Syrian officials that its priority is reducing Iranian influence in their country rather than regime change, this suggests Assad may eventually be in a position to exchange his relationship with Iran for Saudi recognition of his leadership. For a variety of reasons he is however extremely unlikely to do so.
In Syria, Assad believes he has reversed the conventional wisdom of guerrilla warfare, and that rather than losing because he has not won, he is winning because he has not been defeated. Indeed, it would seem the risk of overconfidence and triumphalism in Damascus is greater than that of panic.
Within Syria, the panoply of rebel movements appear incapable of administering a decisive blow against the regime. Beyond its borders, the ability of outside parties, particularly Turkey, to fundamentally alter this equation is if anything more constrained than in previous years, and it would require major developments for foreign powers to seriously contemplate decisive intervention.
Yet, for all its conviction that it has survived the worst and is no longer at existential risk, the pertinent reality is that, in the words of Syria analyst Bassam Haddad, “the regime’s territorial losses are mostly irreversible”. That this could lead to a formal partition of Syria is extremely unlikely. Both the government and overwhelming majority of opposition forces remain committed to their country’s unity, and despite the present kaleidoscopic map delineating different areas of control, insist on ultimately ruling all rather than parts of it. Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are also central to every international proposal for resolving the conflict, and – in sharp contrast to Iraq – this principle has yet to be questioned by a single regional or global power. On the ground, the limited capacity of the Kurds to challenge the status quo is being rolled back by Turkey, while the entity established by IS will achieve even less formal recognition than did Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
In sum, the formal partition of Syria is considered anathema nationally, regionally and internationally, and the de facto division of the country is therefore unlikely to exceed that of Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s. Combined with the inability of Damascus to reconquer and pacify all of Syria, this suggests that, sooner or later, whether gradually or suddenly, the regime’s very survival will hang in the balance. Because like others confronting prolonged insurgencies, Syria’s Assad will at the end of the day need to win in order to survive.
[a version of this story was first published by Al Jazeera]