Syria: No end in sight — from upheaval to destruction

Syria: No end in sight — from upheaval to destruction

Fifteen months after the crisis broke and took some 15,000 lives, no end is in sight for the Syrian conflict. With the interests of regional powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as Russia, China and the United States lining up with Syrian parties, the conflict has emerged as an existential struggle that makes compromise hard to achieve.

The rhetoric in the U.S. and the West that al-Assad’s days are numbered should be viewed with skepticism. Washington has gambled on al-Assad’s downfall for more than a year, showing either that Syria is hard to read or that the U.S. is hoping for a stroke of luck. Whatever the case, regime collapse in Damascus is not a smart bet for now.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is correct on one point: The armed-wing of the opposition is growing stronger. Thanks to increased arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar through Turkey, with the direct blessing of the U.S., recent opposition attacks have become more potent. The rebels have taken the war to Damascus and Aleppo, the heart of the regime’s power base. The increased pace of senior military defections also shows that Turkey has become more proactive reaching out to senior officers, in trying to squeeze the al-Assad regime, particularly after the June 22 downing of its jet by Syria.

While the Western powers aim to tip the balance of power against al-Assad, he and his inner circle act on the premise that they hold the upper hand. In his June 27 address to his newly appointed cabinet, al-Assad for the first time acknowledged that Syria is in a state of real war and must use all options at its disposal to win this war. Far from conceding ground, al-Assad has intensified attacks against the opposition and stepped up his war of words, accusing the U.S. of supporting terrorism.

Al-Assad’s strength is not simply rhetorical. Despite defections, the Syrian security forces have proved to be more cohesive and resilient than many in the West had supposed. Al-Assad has also benefitted from the crisis becoming mired in a fierce regional struggle between Iran, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States on the other. Iran is providing pivotal economic and military support for the al-Assad regime.

Conceding that the peace initiative has failed, Annan has shifted from trying to achieve a ceasefire to focusing on political mediation between the Syrian government and the opposition. But even before Annan left his meeting with al-Assad, the Syrian National Council (SNC) had issued a statement disagreeing with Annan’s decision to involve Iran. The Iranians, the SNC wrote on Facebook, “cannot be part of the solution unless their position changes radically.” Other opposition figures vehemently attacked Annan’s reaching out to Iran.

Despite Annan’s persistent efforts, the odds are against a political breakthrough. The trust deficit between the two warring camps has grown, leading both the opposition and the al-Assad regime to view the struggle as existential and thus to hunker down for a prolonged fight. The opposition has repeatedly stressed unwillingness to negotiate with the Syrian regime unless al-Assad steps down. Al-Assad still acts on the premise that there’s a security solution, continuing to deploy massive force to crush the opposition with little success.

For all these reasons, a protracted armed conflict is likely to continue. The lack of credible information about the Syrian regime’s machinations makes predictions hazardous. Starving al-Assad out of power is a working strategy, not a proven tactic. Although pressing sanctions are bleeding the Syrian economy, the government has found means to adjust.

Ultimately, the balance of power in Syria will determine whether al-Assad goes. Can al-Assad maintain the cohesiveness of his narrowing ruling coalition? Though his days are not as few as Clinton suggests, there are signs that the regime is not durable and that the likelihood of a rupture within it is real.

The flight of the middle and professional classes, in addition to senior officers and senior diplomats, is proof of growing doubts about al-Assad’s capacity to survive and his coercive power. The defections of (Brigadier General Manaf) Tlass and (Syria's ambassador of Iraq Nawaf) Fares seem to be more related to the destruction in their hometowns rather than a change of heart about al-Assad. Nevertheless, recent defections in the military, along with loss of territory, have not reached a critical mass that threatens the regime’s immediate survival.

There is a standoff between the opposition and the al-Assad regime, with neither capable of destroying the other. The failure of international diplomacy means more violence and a bloody, hot summer in this war-torn country.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, where he directs the Middle East Center. This abridged article originally appeared on Khaleej Times online.