Syrian paradox: the regime gets stronger, even as it loses its grip

Tony Karon writes: News reports typically characterize the Syrian rebellion as being 16 or 17 months old. It is one of those descriptions delivered en passant while relating the news of the day: the battle for Aleppo grinds on into its sixth day threatening a massive humanitarian crisis; new video shows rebels executing unarmed prisoners; President Bashar Assad urges his troops on through written messages but declines to make public appearances, and so on. But the International Crisis Group (ICG), a respected organization of analysts, mediators and former diplomats, on Wednesday issued a report urging opponents of the Assad regime, both Syrian and international, to pay closer attention to the implications of that 17-month time span.

Not only has the Assad regime survived an unprecedented assault, the ICG argues, but it also is no longer the Assad regime of February 2011 — and the rebellion challenging it also may have morphed into something quite different from the uprising that began last year. As a result, stakeholders looking to end the crisis are in urgent need of some thinking that goes beyond speculating whether Assad will go the way of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, or any other autocrat felled during the past year’s Arab rebellion. Syria’s trajectory will be very different. Says the ICG report:

Perhaps the most significant and least appreciated is what, over time, has become of the regime. The one that existed at the outset of the conflict almost certainly could not have survived the spectacular killing of top officials in the heart of its traditional stronghold; street combat in Damascus, Aleppo and a string of other towns; the loss of important border crossings with Turkey and Iraq; all amid near-total economic devastation and diplomatic opprobrium. That, a year and a half later, its new incarnation not only withstood those blows but vigorously counterpunched sends a message worthy of reflection.

Assad’s regime, it warns, is morphing into something less like a government and more akin to factional militia locked into an increasingly brutal fight for its collective survival, relying on an Alawite community that sees a rebel triumph as nothing less than a mortal threat. [Continue reading…]

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