Syria: will Assad lose a war of attrition?

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,’ while The Washington Post replaces Assad’s ‘upper hand’ with a ‘shift on the ground’. Foreign Policy magazine, meanwhile, 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.’

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.

The military situation

The ‘Assad is winning’ viewpoint 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 killed tens of thousands of civilians and 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 co-ordination, 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 mobilised 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.

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 the 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 recognise his rule as the only reasonable option, especially if he could play upon the menace of 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 III’ conference has stalled even before it began.

If the military situation was favourable, 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 favoured Syrian system in place, but that may not require Bashar as its leader.

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 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 spiralling. The average monthly salary of a Damascus worker now buys only 15kg (33lb) of bananas or 5kg (11lb) of beef, let alone pay a rent or mortgage or fuel costs.

The Syrian currency is weakening rapidly. At 50:1 versus 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.

Conclusion

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) is replaced 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 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 a 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 is natural for these types of battles, with the numbers and conditions involved in them, to have them shift between attack and defence, wins and losses, and ups and downs. But the important thing is for faith in the inevitability of victory to remain unchanging.’

Professor Scott Lucas
Professor of International Politics, University of Birmingham and editor of EA WorldView