Is this the beginning of the end for Bashar al-Assad? As his regime suffers simultaneous losses in the north and the south of the country, many commentators are suggesting that the Syrian dictator’s end is nearing.
It is more accurate to say, however, that the war in Syria has entered a new phase. Call it defining the regime’s limits. Some of these limits are structural, related to demographic realities; others are a function of new geopolitical dynamics, namely the organization of an anti-Iranian regional coalition. What’s clear is that the territorial gains the regime made over the past two years, and only as a result of massive Iranian support, represent the peak of what it can hope to achieve. This phase of Iranian-engineered resurgence has hit the wall.
The previous stage, which began in summer of 2013, might be appropriately named “Assad’s deceptive revival.” It was characterized by the full-blown intervention of Iran and its militias (primarily Hezbollah) on the side of the regime, and the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern and eastern Syria. The intervention of these two players enabled the regime to regain its footing and to seize the momentum—despite the debilitating structural deficiencies that today are once again revealing themselves.
The Iranian intervention allowed the regime to consolidate control over strategically vital territory, linking Damascus with Syria’s coastal mountains through the corridor along the border with Lebanon leading to Homs. Iran also oversaw the restructuring of Assad’s fighting force, integrating the regular military with Tehran’s Shiite militias, and with Iranian-trained Syrian paramilitary units. Meanwhile, the emergence of ISIS also worked to the advantage, on balance, of Assad, because it concentrated the lion’s share of its efforts on fighting the opposition rather than the regime.
In addition, whereas Iran maintained strategic focus—shoring up the regime—the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the other backers of the Syrian opposition were disunited. President Obama steadfastly refused to take the steps necessary to bring order to the anti-Assad camp and to give it the kind of strategic purpose that Iran brought to the pro-regime forces. These factors allowed Assad and his allies to go on the offensive, expanding a buffer zone around the regime’s heartland, and reinforcing positions in and near Aleppo.
In many ways, however, this expansion was artificial, often reliant on thin resupply routes. It has now run up against a severe structural constraint—namely, the regime’s limited mobilization capacity. “Presently Alawite mobilization is at full stretch, whether for the army or militias, and the evidence is that it cannot support offensives and can barely hold lines,” explains historian William Harris, author of The Levant: A Fractured Mosaic, an indispensable resource for understanding the deeper dynamics at work in Syria.
Even at the height of the Assad-Iran counteroffensive, the regime’s constraints were apparent—despite Iran’s infusion of thousands of Shiite mercenaries into the battlefield. For example, for all the talk about retaking Aleppo over the past two years, the regime was never able to achieve that objective. In the south, meanwhile, the regime’s hold gradually collapsed over the course of 2014—and this despite the heavy Iranian investment there.
By all accounts, the attrition rate among the regime’s core base of support—the Alawite community—has been very high. “Everything we hear about casualties among mobilized Alawite males tells us that the loss proportions are comparable with the armies that suffered the worst loss rates in the First World War,” says Harris.
Aside from this insurmountable structural problem, Saudi Arabia’s response to the Iranian intervention has also played a much larger role than most commentators have noticed. Having recognized that Obama had abandoned America’s traditional leadership role in the Middle East, the new Saudi monarch moved to organize regional states to challenge Iranian expansionism. This decision has translated into coordination between Riyadh and other regional players—namely Turkey, Qatar and Jordan—which quickly influenced the course of events on the Syrian battlefield. As a result, the regime’s position in Idlib is now collapsing, and it continues to deteriorate in the Daraa province as well.
Thus we are now back where we were almost two years ago. For structural reasons, this is how the regime was always likely to end up: as an enclave in western Syria. In the last phase of the war, the Iranians compensated for the regime’s manpower deficiency on the battlefield, but they also exploited, diplomatically, Western fears of ISIS. Iran and its surrogates managed to convince half-educated Western commentators that Iran and Assad shared the same interests as the United States and Europe in defeating ISIS. They had no grasp of the fact that the Syrian dictator could never play the role they envisioned for him. Structural constraints always determined that Assad would be, at best, a warlord propped up by Iran in control of a strip of cantons from Damascus to the coast.
The continuation of Assad’s current decline depends on three key variables. First, Saudi Arabia must maintain unity among the rebels’ backers. Second, the rebels themselves must maintain at least a semblance of internal cohesion. And thirdly, the United States must prevent the nuclear deal from giving Iran the means, diplomatic as well as economic, to revitalize the pro-Assad forces once again.
There is still a long way to go, with a procession of new phases to the war. But in the long run, the situation does not bode well for the regime.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.