Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Assad's regime is brittle, and it may fall fast

Assad's regime is brittle, and it may fall fast

It is not yet possible to say whether, when and how the Syrian regime may fall. But recent military setbacks, and an objective analysis of the challenges the regime faces in the longer term, strongly suggest that its future is increasingly precarious.

The momentum of the military conflict has shifted in favour of the rebel movements, foremost of which are the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham, which is backed by Turkey. Much of the reversal of rebel fortunes appears to have been derived from a deal between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, brokered by Qatar, under which a joint operations room facility has been established among the rebel forces. Having captured Idlib and the even more strategically important town of Jisr al-Shughour, they are now within striking distance of Hama to the south and Latakia to the west. They have cut the Aleppo-Latakia highway. 

In contrast, efforts by the regime this year to win back Deraa, near the southern border with Jordan, and to secure control of Aleppo, have failed. With Hezbollah support, the regime is now engaged in a battle for control of the Qalamoun mountainous region straddling the border with Lebanon west of Damascus. It is trying to recover Jisr al-Shughour, and a major offensive to remove rebel forces from the Ghouta area adjacent to Damascus is widely anticipated. 

But lacking a flexible strategic reserve, the redeployment of regime forces to pursue those tasks has weakened its position elsewhere. Islamic State forces have seized the opportunity to push forward in Deir ez-Zour, and recently toward Palmyra and Homs.

The outcome of the battles for Jisr al-Shughur and the Qalamoun region will provide a clear indication of the regime's military situation in areas of high strategic value. Elsewhere, however, with a few exceptions, the military effectiveness of the regime has been reduced to such a degree that an assertion of territorial control is unlikely for the foreseeable future. [fold]

Even within what might be regarded as the regime's strategic core, and despite its monopoly on air power, it is at risk. It may lose control over the Hama air base, as well as land routes to Aleppo from the south.

These risks may yet be mitigated by a variety of factors. Conflict has been reported between Islamic State fighters and Jabhat al-Nusra amid the pressure of the Qalamoun offensive. The external backers of the various rebel forces do not share a single vision of the ultimate objectives of the struggle to remove Assad. The Saudis may yet become bogged down in their campaign in Yemen. Iran and Russia have strategic interests invested in the Assad regime (though not in Assad personally) that they will not readily relinquish. 

Weighing against those factors, however, are the challenges and painful choices faced by the Syrian regime. It is increasingly difficulty for the regime to raise and sustain additional regular military forces. The regime appears increasingly dependent on inputs from Hezbollah to boost its military capability (among the reasons for losing Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour may have been the absence of such support). It is anxiously awaiting promised financial support from Iran. There have also been indications of friction within the upper echelons of the regime.

At the strategic level, the regime is being forced to choose between a politically-driven desire to maintain a military presence, however vulnerable, across most of the country, or withdrawing its forces to concentrate on the defence of the regime's centre of gravity: Damascus and its surrounds, and access routes through Homs to the Mediterranean seaboard and adjacent mountains which comprise the historic Alawite heartland. 

Whatever the military case may be for consolidating defensively around Damascus and a predominantly Alawite enclave, it is a strategy which entails enormous risk. It would signal to the regime's support base (and to the rebels and their backers) that there is blood in the water. In contrast to the experience since 2011, the Syrian battle space would no longer be shaped by the regime. The regime would be on the defensive, and would have to find ways to sustain its supporters' will to fight rather than flee. The psychological impact of terrorist actions that until now have been fairly readily absorbed by the population in Damascus would probably be enhanced.

For the first time on a large scale in this conflict, Syrians would witness atrocities against the Alawite inhabitants of mixed villages in the north and west that were no longer protected. In predominantly Alawite and Christian mountain villages, and coastal towns largely untouched by the war to date such as Tartous, the inflow of Alawite and other minorities fleeing the conflict and jihadist advances would likely damage morale.

As a recent program on al-Jazeera Arabic highlighted, there is a strong possibility that historical as well as more recent grievances against the Alawites will be given concrete expression in the most horrendous ways as the regime weakens. A substantial number of Syrians, unable to vent their anger on Assad personally for the hardships they suffered under his father and since 2011, will want Alawites to share the fate of the regime.

Whether or not a bloodbath ensues, the widespread anticipation of such a situation is virtually certain. Fear of genocide, amplified by actual incidents and possibly used by some actors as a means of putting additional pressure on the regime or minorities thinking of remaining, could produce a population movement on a scale not witnessed in the region since Palestine in 1948 or the flight of Iraqi Kurds in 1991.

For the first time in the conflict, one side may feel it could lose. For most Alawites, this is an existential conflict for a long-persecuted, mostly illiterate minority. Alawites fought their way to the top of the political system after the chaos of the post-independence period and reversed their historical exploitation at the hands of the northern Syrian Sunni and Christian elite. Alawites led in crushing the resistance of the Sunnis who had lost that contest – culminating in the massacre in Hama in 1982. But their success was always at the risk of dire retribution should their political grip weaken. That prospect now looms large.

For the other supporters of the regime, including many secular Sunnis, the middle class in Damascus and minorities understandably fearful of the jihadists, the fall of the regime would mean the likely obliteration of their wealth and privilege. It would see the loss of a lifestyle and sophisticated cultural heritage of which Syrians, more than most Arabs, are deeply proud.

So the prospect of Alawite defeat does not mean the Syrian regime is open to a negotiated settlement. There is no way the regime can entertain the notion of a power-sharing deal with its opponents. There are cleavages within the community, but the regime is likely to be more disposed to fight on than to accept the consequences of a deal, even in the unlikely event a credible deal were to be offered.

It is too soon to predict the demise of the Assad Government. It may hold on long enough to see its opponents lose their present momentum. But it is becoming a brittle regime, more likely to implode suddenly than to sustain itself should a rush to the exits begin.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Christiaan Triebert.

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