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Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Is Assad winning?

Bashar al-Assad pictured during a TV interview in September this year. (AFP photo/SANA)

Bashar al-Assad and his proponents make their defeats look like victories. Their detractors do the opposite. So while heavily bruised, Assad projects an image of a strong man beaming with confidence. His opponents come across as whiners who want the world to defeat Assad for them, while they have failed – for two years – in electing a body that would represent all of them.

 

And even though the Syrian opposition – inside of Syria and outside of it, military and non-military – has displayed incompetence, Assad has still suffered heavy losses. This is due to his many faux pas and the strength of Islamist terrorists, mostly non-Syrian, who have bloodied Assad and his irregular militias, including Lebanon's Hezbollah.

 

Perhaps it is time for Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah to rethink his Syria plan. It has been four months since the joint Assad-Hezbollah force conquered Qusayr. But for all the talk about a reversal in fortunes, Assad and Hezbollah have yet to show other significant gains. So long for the Hezbollah "elite force" that many thought would tilt the balance in Assad's favor.

 

Syria has proven to be bigger than what Hezbollah can chew. With numbers of fighters on either side counting close to 100,000, estimates indicate that Hezbollah can muster 20,000 fighters at most. And the crux of Hezbollah's force, mainly non-professionals, cannot be deployed for long tours. This leaves the militia thinly stretched, especially given that after "clearing," Assad and Hezbollah have to hold territory they re-conquer, which means they have to leave fighters behind and strain the numbers available for further attacks.

 

The inability to sweep, however, does not mean Assad is losing. Assad's force is mechanized and entrenched in heavily fortified bunkers on the hills around Damascus. The Assad-Hezbollah firepower and military gear are far more superior to those of the rebels.

 

So while Assad is not winning, he is not losing either. Assad has lost control over vast territory outside of the corridor that he controls between Damascus and the mountainous northeast, which increasingly looks like a hard nut to crack, and probably needs weapons that are not at the disposal of rebels.

 

That's all good news for Assad. But not losing his core territory is very different than ruling the whole of Syria, which the Assads controlled for decades.

 

Assad has been obsessed with "clearing" Damascus and its vicinity. His forces have employed sustained bombardment, while his infantry has tried to make inroads, with little success. The presence of rebels in suburbs, from where they can hit Assad's motorcade, undermines his attempt at projecting an image of normalcy that he and his wife, Asma, try hard to show on Instagram and social media websites.

 

Maybe it was this frustration that made Assad launch his chemical attack on Ghouta on August 21.

 

We now know that the attack was halted, perhaps after Assad felt a backlash. Whatever Assad's plan was, he certainly wanted to clear the rebel-controlled suburbs. He failed, and the chemical attack made America move its warships for a punitive strike, which even though was designed not to topple him, would have taken out the clear military advantage that he has over the rebels.

 

Russia too felt that its protégé had gone rogue, and it made way for the Americans to strike. But Secretary of State John Kerry's gaffe gave the Russians something to toy with diplomatically, and hence stop the attack.

 

Seeing that America had stepped down, maybe for good, Russia and Iran now race to crack a deal with Washington over Syria. This race is bad news for Assad.

 

For Russia and Iran to take over Syria, they would need to show America some concessions. Moscow has so far forced Assad to admit that he sits on a giant chemical arsenal, to promise to dismantle it, and to accept talking to the opposition in Geneva, including armed groups.

 

For its part, Iran wants something different than Geneva. In return for abandoning uranium enrichment up to 20 percent, Tehran wants a free hand in Syria, meaning sponsors cut off the anti-Assad opposition, and Assad or Hezbollah be given a freehand to win the civil war. While Washington might stomach such a deal, it is unlikely that Assad can stay if the US and Iran become buddies. Syria will be ceded to Iran, but Assad will have to be disposed of. Washington and Tehran can always find another Maliki for Syria.

 

For Assad, the days of balancing Russia against America and Arab countries against Iran are long gone. Bruised and unable to get himself out of trouble, Assad will have to settle for whatever others decide for him. His fate is not in his hands anymore, which means he can't be winning.

 

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain.

Bashar al-Assad pictured during a TV interview in September this year. (AFP photo/SANA)

"For Assad, the days of balancing Russia against America and Arab countries against Iran are long gone."

  • YoMamma

    "This is due to his many faux pas and the strength of Islamist terrorists, mostly non-Syrian, who have bloodied Assad and his irregular militias, including Lebanon's Hezbollah" Who liberated Al Qusayr with minimal losses? That's right. It was Hezballah and the Syrian Army. How many men did the Islamist terrorists lose in that battle? Thousands dead. Many more injured. And the rest fleeing for their lives. How many men did Hezballah lose? Just over 100 I fail to see the strenght of these islamist terrorists. Seriously go and change your name to something else. The name "Hussain" is an honour, but you are a disgrace.

    October 8, 2013