War in Syria — approaching the end or a new chapter?

Tony Karon writes: The stern warnings by President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials this week that Syria‘s President Bashar Assad would face “consequences” and be “held accountable” for any use of chemical weapons against his own people, has amplified speculation that the country’s bloody civil war may be entering a terminal phase. After all, the regime is now using air strikes and artillery against insurgent neighborhoods in its own capital, having lost control of vast swathes of northern and eastern Syria. Assad had refrained from using stocks of weapons of mass destruction over the past 22 months, aware that doing so could force reluctant Western powers to intervene — and analysts had assumed that he might take such a risk only if he felt the wall at his back.

NBC News reported Wednesday that U.S. officials now say chemical munitions are being prepared for use by the Syrian military — after reporting a day earlier that a senior Pentagon official had said there was “no evidence yet that the Syrian military has actually begun the process of mixing precursor chemicals to produce deadly Sarin nerve gas.” Wednesday’s report suggested the Syrian military was, in fact, mixing precursor chemicals into bombs, but had not yet been ordered to use them.

Still, just what such reports might signal about the overall arc of events in Syria is unclear. There’s no question that rebel forces have made dramatic territorial gains over the past month, with insurgents boosting their artillery and surface-to-air missile capability as they overrun outlying military bases. Two regime aircraft have been downed by SAMs over the past two weeks, suggesting some rebel formations now had some means to defend against air strikes. And the regime’s increasingly besieged garrison in Aleppo is struggling to hold onto Syria’s second city, while the rebels have now launched what may be a sustained assault on the capital Damascus.

But for all of that writing on the wall, it may yet be premature to suggest that the 22-month civil war that has claimed more than 30,000 lives is near an end. The regime still has an overwhelming advantage in fire-power, analyst Joe Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War told the Washington Post this week, and the limits of rebel arms and organization may mean that their victory remains many months away. “What we’re seeing is a contraction from the regime,” Holliday said. “The rebels have been successful in forcing the regime to give up on outlying outposts.” The territory it has been forced to cede includes much of Syria’s borders with Iraq and Turkey, and oil fields in the east. Indeed, despite remaining the most powerful military player within the country, the Assad regime no longer controls Syria, which no longer functions as a single, centralized nation state. And its failure to destroy the rebellion or reverse its gains after two years of fighting will have signaled the regime’s strategic decision makers that restoring control over all of Syria may be a bridge too far. The decisive question, instead, may be the end-game logic of the “contraction” posited by Holliday.

Different rebel factions — which have yet to be consolidated under a single military or political leadership — control pockets of territory throughout the country, while an autonomous Kurdish zone has emerged along the Turkish border, ceded by the regime to Kurdish militia at odds with the rebellion. And even the major cities, Damascus and Aleppo, now contain internal, ethnic and sectarian “borders” across which mortar and artillery fire blazes. Absent a negotiated political solution, U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned last weekend, Syria could become a “failed state” where government institutions “whither away” to be replaced by “lawlessness, warlordism, banditry, narcotics, arms smuggling, and worst of all, the ugly face of communal and sectarian strife.”

Yet, such a fracturing of Syria could, in the minds of some of the hard men around Assad, offer the prospect of salvaging more than they might if the regime is defeated and replaced by a strong, Sunni-dominated central state. Assad’s regime is not so much a personality-cult dictatorship as it is a system of Alawite minority rule and privilege, and its core remains a cohesive, heavily armed and highly motivated Alawite-dominated army that believes it is fighting for the survival of its community. Even once it recognizes that it can no longer rule the entire country, its sectarian communal logic may militate against making a desperate last stand in Damascus, a predominantly Sunni city. [Continue reading…]

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