Joshua Landis writes: President Bashar al-Assad comes to the negotiating table in Switzerland apparently stronger today than at any time in the last two years. Thus his cavalier tone ahead of the talks, dismissing opposition representatives as a “joke” and brushing off U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s and the opposition’s demand that he relinquish power and accept a “transitional governing body.” Instead, Assad maintains, Syria will hold elections this year, and “I see no reason why I shouldn’t stand.”
Understanding why Assad’s regime survives more than two years after then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a “dead man walking” is critical for gauging the outcome of the Geneva II talks.
The regime’s resilience is based, first and foremost, on the Syrian army. Without its loyalty, Assad would likely have fallen as quickly as Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak did in 2011. But while many soldiers and officers did join the rebellion, most did so as individuals; few entire units defected, and no entire divisions did. Structurally, the military held together, and it was able to replenish its ranks through intensive recruitment among the Alawite minority, where many are loyal to the regime and still more live in mortal fear of sectarian retribution at the hands of the Sunni-led armed rebellion. The same factors allowed the military to expand its capabilities through the paramilitary Popular Committees, often called shabiha. And it has also been able to enlist the support in critical battles of units of the Shia Hezbollah militia from neighboring Lebanon, whose leaders recognize that their own military fortunes depend on maintaining the resupply lines that the Assad regime has long provided.
Just as important as the military’s loyalty to the regime have been its superior armaments. Even if rebel fighters, who number well in excess of 100,000 by most estimates, outnumber the Syrian army, in any battle for territory they are often little match for the army’s dramatic technological and organizational advantage. Rebel militias have no answer for the artillery, armor and airpower of the Syrian military. Perhaps even more important, the rebels have no central command. And it is difficult to imagine, today, how the rebels could plausibly overcome these disadvantages.
The fragmentation and radicalization of rebel fighting forces has been the opposition’s greatest weakness. Had a unified political-military command emerged among the rebels in the first year of the uprising, at the height of optimism over the Arab Spring, the United States and Europeans might well have been persuaded to give direct military backing to the uprising. Today, such hopes have been dashed.
Infighting among rival militias battling for control over rebel-held areas has, in recent weeks, cost over 1,000 lives. The prospect of militia chaos combined with widespread human rights abuses, the radicalization of the militias and an estimated 10,000 foreigners fighting on the rebel side have spooked Western leaders, even amid the anguish caused by images depicting gruesome torture and murder in the dungeons of the regime.
Few policymakers talk about “good guys” in Syria anymore; some — most notably former CIA Director Michael Hayden last December — even argue that a rebel victory would be worse than an Assad win. Not even the recent emergence of a larger militia coalition, the Islamic Front, to organize rebel fighting and challenge forces aligned with Al-Qaeda has been able to end rebel chaos.
Foreign involvement in the Syrian civil war has also worked strongly to the advantage of the regime. Iran and Russia have proved to be far more reliable as allies to Assad than the U.S. and Gulf Arab states have been to the rebels. From day one of the revolt, Assad’s top worry has been that the U.S. would invade. He and his generals were convinced that they could survive as long as F-16s did not appear over the Damascus horizon. So far, their assumption has proved to be correct. [Continue reading…]