Charles Lister writes: After roughly two years of being on the defensive, Syria’s rebels are making dramatic gains in the north of the country. In the span of six weeks, coalitions of insurgent fighters captured the city of Idlib and won a series of key strategic victories elsewhere in the governorate. In the face of the opposition, the Syrian Army and its supporting militias appear at their weakest point since early 2013.
However, while much of the subsequent commentary proclaimed this as the beginning of the end for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, we are still a long way from that. In fact, the regime reacted to its dramatic losses in the north by carrying out hundreds of air strikes, barrel bombings, and chlorine attacks in rural Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo. Regime ground offensives were launched in eastern Damascus, in areas of Homs, and in the mountains around Zabadani near the Lebanese border. Meanwhile, a major joint regime-Hezbollah offensive in the Qalamoun mountains now also looks imminent.
So what is happening in Syria? Recent events have clearly tipped the psychological scales back into the opposition’s favor: Losses in Idlib and the southern governorate of Deraa have placed great pressure on Assad, whose severe manpower shortages are becoming more evident by the day. Frustration, disaffection and even incidences of protest are rising across Assad’s most ardent areas of support on Syria’s coast — some of which are now under direct attack. Hezbollah is stretched thin and even Iranian forces have begun withdrawing to the areas of Syria deemed to be the most important for regime survival.
The regime is no longer militarily capable of launching definitively successful operations outside of its most valuable territories, while its capacity for defense against concerted attack now appears questionable at best. It also looks diplomatically weaker, as Russia appears no longer wedded to the Assad regime’s long-term survival and is now more open to the idea of a managed transition that would ensure the best chances of post-regime stability. Meanwhile, Iran’s apparent rapprochement with the United States and its expected involvement in talks in Geneva convened by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura may open the door for, at the very least, discussions of a negotiated solution in Syria.
However, diplomacy alone will be unlikely to provide a path out of Syria’s conflict. Even as a broad swathe of the international community talks behind closed doors about launching a major new diplomatic initiative on Syria, it will ultimately be military pressure inside Syria that will determine whether such an initiative has any chance of success. [Continue reading…]