The Near Fall, and Then Rise, of the Syrian Regime

Gone are the days when the Syrian rebels appeared to be closing in on the capital, with fighting and explosions in and around the city giving the impression its fall was imminent. During the past weeks, the regime has gone from strength to strength. The military advances in the town of Quasayr is one example, but of much greater importance would be—if confirmed—the delivery by Russia of anti-aircraft missiles. The level of support, both physical and moral, that this would constitute for the Syrian authorities cannot be underestimated. Commenting on the confidence displayed by the Syrian leader in his latest televised interview, the editor-in-chief of Al-Quds al-Arabi Abdelbari Atwan argued that the days of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad are far from numbered, and pointed to the Algerian civil war in the 1990s as the closest model of events in Syria—that is, a long, drawn-out conflict with hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Al-Assad’s declarations in this last interview regarding the conference (planned for Geneva and aimed at stopping the violence and initiating a political process between the regime and the opposition) constitute a continuation of his hardline attitude towards the opposition and a reversal of the much more conciliatory tone adopted days before by his foreign minister. The Syrian president’s attitude towards the opposition can be summed up in one sentence: they do not to represent anyone but themselves and the foreign governments that finance them. Concerning the demand that he step down, al-Assad expressed outright refusal and a coyly half-hidden intention to run for re-election in 2014. Further, any decision that might come out of such meeting would not be implemented immediately but would have to be presented to the public through a popular referendum. Basically, in contradiction to the declarations made by his chief diplomat that Syria has no preconditions to participate, the president has a bagful of them, which appear to make convening the conference futile.

The fact is that even without the declarations by al-Assad, the conference is unlikely to take place. This is mainly due to two factors: the rivalries between its sponsors—Russia and the US—and the divisions among the Syrian opposition, who recently gathered in Istanbul and seemed incapable of agreeing on anything at all. In particular, the National Syrian Coalition is said to be under pressure in order to include more “liberal” (read secular and pro-Western) members that would counterbalance the current dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood. This type of foreign intervention, however, only serves to further discredit the group in the eyes of the Arab public. Thus, the opposition and its allies are looking increasingly fragmented, hesitant and, at least in the case of the former, helpless.

Other than these more immediate events, a series of developments have taken place in the past few months that further explain al-Assad’s confidence. Looking back from the beginning of the year until today, apart from the horrific violence and its graphic portrayal in a string of videos uploaded to YouTube, the Israeli intervention and the increasingly visible participation of Hezbollah stand out. Israel has now attacked Syrian targets three times since late January, and twice in the month of May. Then, after initial efforts to obfuscate the reasons behind the funerals of Hezbollah, the Shiite movement now publicly recognizes its involvement in the fighting in Syria. The significance and openness of the collaboration was sealed by the fact that al-Assad chose to give his latest interview to Al-Manar, the channel of the Shiite Lebanese movement.

The press has been quick to point to the contradiction between the stated raison d’etre of Hezbollah—fighting Israel—and its involvement in an increasingly sectarian war in Syria, for very pragmatic reasons,  but these are two phenomena that are tied together in multiple ways. The most obvious is the fact that the Israeli attacks were supposed to be attempts to prevent the transfer of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Less evident, though still very much part of the equation, is the fact that the attacks by Israel serve to strengthen the arguments of Hezbollah and Syria in front of the Arab public, and are used by these as evidence that it is fighting Israel. In Gaza, for example, the Hamas authorities—which deftly switched sides early on in the conflict, left its headquarters in Damascus and came out against the Syrian regime—have repressed demonstrations in protest for the Israeli attacks in Syria. Clearly, Israel has weighed the consequences and has decided to give priority to its direct interest of preventing further weapons transfers to Lebanon, despite being aware that this would enhance the standing of Syria and Hezbollah in front of the Arab public.

And it is no coincidence that the Syrian president chose to make Israel the centerpiece of his declarations to Al-Manar in an attempt to place the Jewish state in the foreground of the conflict. In particular, the most potentially consequential statements made by al-Assad were those directed at Israel, which he said Syria would retaliate against if attacked again. Israel, which has already carried out several air raids against Syria since the end of January, previously indicated it would respond to the transfer of the Russian air defense systems, and it appears only a question of time before the intentions of either is put to the test.

The increasingly sectarian character of the conflict means that there are reasons to argue that, because most Arab countries have a Sunni majority, they are inclined to support the Syrian rebels. Egypt, for example, is a country that has opened its doors to Syrian refugees, facilitating their entrance and access to services. Despite the dire economic situation, Syrian refugees are seen working in small workshops in downtown Cairo, benefiting from a sense of solidarity that is, at least to some extent, based on sectarian affiliation. However, the Middle East is far from homogenously split along sectarian lines. Loyalties cross such apparent divisions with ease, and Hezbollah and Iran might be as repudiated as they are revered. Standing up to Israel and the West are extremely popular—and populist—themes in this part of the world.

Clearly, none of this guarantees that the regime of al-Assad will, in the end, survive this conflict. In fact, given the capabilities of the forces lined up against it and the interests in breaking the back of the alliances between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, it is likely that it will not. However, more important than speculating about the end result is the question of how to stop the carnage taking place in the meantime. And in this, the international community is failing miserably; whether it is sending weapons to the Syrian regime, to the rebels, or competing over control of the rebels, they are fuelling the flames rather than putting out the fire.

Jose Vericat is an Advisor at the International Peace Institute.

Photo credit: James Gordon/Flickr