Judging by a lot of the media coverage of the Syrian war, President Bashar al-Assad runs a curious sort of regime: it is always either crumbling or on the verge of victory.
The narrative shifts every now and then. Assad was losing from March 2011 until around October 2013, then he was winning for about a year and a half, and now he is back to losing again. The story is consistent only in that it remains reliably hung up on the extremes of victory or defeat.
Only rarely will the Assad regime be described as what it most probably is: a decomposing rump state plodding through a confused civil war toward an uncertain future, with no one quite sure anymore what victory would even look like. The Syrian government may lose more territory and break down structurally, perhaps even rapidly and catastrophically, but its constituent parts are not about to vanish from the face of the earth. In the hypothetical event of Assad’s death or withdrawal from Damascus, his armed forces would not cease to exist. Some would flee and some would die, but what remained would melt into a new ecology of militias and mayhem—and the war would go on.
A choir of voices is now, again, saying that Assad is headed for defeat. Fair enough: he has obviously lost some territory that he would rather have kept, and his regime is consuming troops and resources at a faster pace than it can replace them. Internal structural problems continue to hobble the government’s military efforts and are likely to grow worse. The economy may be the weakest pillar of his regime, as Western sanctions begin to bite and Iran and Russia cut back on financial aid in response to falling oil prices. A hint of desperation is now creeping into regime behavior: the pro-Assad TV station Addounia has just launched a call for Syrian expatriates to buy Syrian pounds in order to prop up the failing currency. Mysterious reports about the death of intelligence chief Rustum Ghazaleh last month, as well as a new set of unproven rumors about the head of the National Security Bureau General Ali Mamlouk’s failing health and house arrest, only add to the sense of an impending collapse.
However, let us not forget why Assad did not just lose the war in 2011: he has a significant base of support inside the territories still under his control, he is not being invaded by a stronger army, and his many opponents are too divided to function effectively. Even as the rebels grow stronger and he grows weaker, there are limits to how far they can chase Assad before they stumble over their own internal problems or run up against international objections.
In addition, the government has over the past year secured Homs and several key Damascus suburbs. These are areas of far greater strategic importance than Idlib or Jisr al-Shughour. No less important is the emerging albeit unspoken consensus in Western capitals since the summer of 2014 that Assad is a lesser evil than the Islamic State and that he should not, for the moment, be pushed past the breaking point.
As recently as February 26, 2015, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency declared that the war is “trending in the Assad regime’s favor.” In recent weeks, we have witnessed developments that have called this analysis into question—including the army’s territorial losses, reports of more assertive international backing for the rebels, and the Ghazaleh affair—but it was not unfounded. Assad remains the single strongest actor in the war, there are currently no signs that his allies are abandoning him, and the rebels remain too poorly organized to rule the country.
Certainly, the economic and institutional gangrene in Syria could trigger a cascading split that effectively brings down the government, as the opposition has been hoping for four years. But that is not a predictable process. For all we know, the opposition or its international backing could implode first, changing the game again.
The Syrian Baathist elite is exceedingly secretive and difficult to understand, and the opposition groups and their allies are not much more transparent. In fact, even if all the information were available to us, this conflict might still contain too many moving parts to have an easily predictable outcome.
Four years after the uprising began, Syria has gained a reputation as the graveyard of political analysis, and it is well deserved. Many more confident statements, reports, and articles will undoubtedly be added to the pile before the war is over—and given the extraordinary complexity of this tragic and brutal conflict, some humility would be in order before pronouncing in favor of either side.
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