Aron Lund writes: While Syria’s Sunni Arab rebels share many goals and allies, and infighting among them remains relatively rare, these factions have never managed to find a center of gravity around which to unify. Forceful international support is often portrayed as the means to change this, but in fact, it has had the opposite effect. The West and its allies have intervened to empower rivals to the jihadi bloc that would otherwise dominate, thus cementing the insurgency’s fragmentation instead of ending it. This dynamic is unlikely to go away. The large Islamist rebel factions that could tip the scales in a non-jihadi direction, such as Ahrar al-Sham, seem unwilling and unable to disentangle themselves from the Nusra Front. This leaves the Sunni Arab insurgency stuck in a position from which it cannot win.
That leaves Bashar al-Assad. While he has so far succeeded in preventing the emergence of a credible competitor and blocking all proposals for a political transition, the president has not yet offered a positive plan for how to reunify and stabilize Syria. At this point, his regime seems at once inevitable and unviable.
Even with strong Russian and Iranian support, Assad’s government seems too weak to reconquer the country by force. The president could theoretically compensate for this weakness by engaging in effective diplomacy or striking deals with his opponents, but he has so far shown neither the inclination nor the ability to do so. Indeed, the resistance to a full-blown Assad restoration would be massive; hatred of Assad and his family is a main motivating cause of the insurgency as well as its international support networks.
Assad might, however, be able to engineer international acquiescence to his continued dominance of a fractured country. If things continue to go the government’s way militarily, as they have since Russia intervened on September 30, and if international resistance to him subsides, Assad could potentially lock down the core regions of what has become known as “useful Syria.” This could include Damascus, Homs, Hama, Tartous, Latakia, and Aleppo, plus parts or all of Deir Ezzor, Daraa, and Raqqa. International economic and military support channeled through the central government could then sustain, and to some extent revive, the state apparatus. In so doing, it would help to reconnect some, though not all, of the peripheral areas to Damascus.
But even in this scenario, the bloodshed would not be over. There would certainly be flare-ups between Assad and other actors. In some areas, notably those now controlled by jihadists, the war would be likely to last for a long, long time. Human rights abuses in government-held territory would of course continue unabated and Syrians would be doomed to kiss the boot of the Assad family for another generation. Even beyond that, political stability would be of only a relative nature. Over time, the government would struggle to re-create a functioning economy, survive internal challenges, and retain basic cohesion. Still, this is probably the direction in which Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to nudge the Geneva peace process, arguing that it is the only way of avoiding a permanent state collapse. And no other major actor has offered a credible way forward. It is entirely possible that such a victory for Assad, if it can be called that, would only postpone rather than prevent complete state failure. [Continue reading…]