Does Assad Really Have Time on His Side?
That President Bashar al-Assad sees time as working in his favor in the Syrian Civil War is evidenced by his disregard for internationally brokered ceasefires. And it is true that in the international arena, his relative situation appears to be steadily improving, as the discussion of a viable moderate rebel fighting force has all but died out. However, at the same time, the Assad regime’s ability to function as a fighting and governing force is being steadily degraded by the grinding civil war and the growing cracks in its bases of support. Therefore, despite its vow to continue fighting and retake every inch of Syria, the Assad regime is unlikely to dramatically expand its control over Syrian territory in the near future.
The rebels’ image as both extreme and divided has been an important factor in improving Assad’s image as the only reasonable option in Syria. Since the uprising’s militarization, there has been a clear trend towards the radicalization of anti-Assad forces, such as large-scale defections from the Free Syrian Army to jihadist groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham)—for a variety of reasons, including their comparative success, higher wages and ideologies. This continues to reinforce the idea that “moderate opposition” in Syria is little more than a myth, and deter any Western efforts at arming these groups out of fear that they could become jihadists and turn their weapons on the West. The recent footage of U.S.-backed rebel forces chasing U.S. commandos out of al-Rai while chanting anti-American slogans did little to dispel that notion or engender goodwill from the West. Furthermore, the perception of the rebels as hopelessly divided was reinforced by infighting in the power vacuum created after a Russian airstrike killed Jaysh al-Islam’s Zahran Alloush (which allowed Assad to make inroads in the areas surrounding Damascus).
In contrast, the Assad regime’s fortunes are changing for the better in the international arena. In August 2016, Chinese officials took a bold step beyond their general opposition to interference in domestic affairs of sovereign nations by declaring that they would be providing training to Syrian military personnel as well as humanitarian assistance to the Assad regime. Similarly, there are indications that Ankara is ready to abandon its anti-Assad position and reach an understanding with Damascus in order to cooperate against the Kurds. For example, in August of 2016, the Turks, in an action that was probably coordinated with the Syrians, Russians and Iranians, cut off a major jihadist supply line in the border town of Jarablus in order to prevent complete Kurdish control over the region the Kurds call Rojava. In the previous summer, there is no doubt that nuclear agreement (JCPOA) improved the positioning of the Assad regime in several ways: it improved the economic situation of Assad’s backers in Tehran, it forced the U.S. administration to proceed with caution in Syria to avoid scuttling the deal and it allowed Iran to update the aircraft used for supplying arms to Damascus. Furthermore, the consensus that regime change failed in Libya and Iraq has resulted in widespread anti-interventionist attitudes, causing many to declare their opposition to toppling Assad by saying, “Syria will not become another Libya.”
Yet, this does not translate into an actual opportunity for the Assad regime to dramatically expand its direct control of Syrian territory, because it does not negate domestic issues such as the declining ability to maintain a centralized and cohesive fighting force and poor governance in areas under regime control.