Reports of Assad’s (pending) demise may be greatly exaggerated

Lionel Beehner writes: The tell-tale signs that regime change might be imminent are manifold: First, Iran would have to reckon that Assad may be expendable. That is the hunch of Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, who believes that Iran might cut a deal so long as it retains a transit corridor thru Syria to its proxies in Lebanon. Were Russia and Iran to abandon Assad, the house of cards in Damascus would collapse. Second, a ramping up of U.S.-led military pressure might signal to regime supporters that the end is near. This does not require sending in the Fifth Fleet, but might entail boosting offensive military aid to the opposition – let’s scrap this notion of only supporting the vetted “moderate” opposition, which is a meaningless term during times of war – an air campaign against regime targets closer to Damascus, and potentially a de facto no-fly zone and humanitarian corridor in the north. Finally, the rebels would have to seize cities further south, such as Hama, Homs, or Latakia.

Yet none of the above appears likely, given distractions elsewhere (in Yemen, Ukraine, and so forth). As such, the war is at a stalemate. ISIS, despite losing Kobane to US-backed Kurdish forces, still controls large swaths of territory. US-led airpower has been unable to dislodge its gains. On the flipside, the Assad regime can safely portray the war as going its way. Its military has focused mostly on the strategic belt of land that stretches from Dara in the south to Aleppo in the north, ceding large chunks of (mostly unpopulated) territory near Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to ISIS forces. Its forces are stretched too thin, even despite reinforcements from Iran and Lebanon, to control the whole country. In other words, neither side can credibly defeat the other side at this stage in the conflict, yet nor can they credibly accept a peace plan or amnesty, as Assad offered in his Foreign Affairs interview. This is what the scholar Nazih Richani calls a “comfortable impasse” – both sides can withstand untold levels of violence and keep fighting because time remains their most precious asset. [Continue reading…]

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