After four years of bloody civil war in Syria, severely affected by external interference, it appears that the regime in Damascus has begun to crack, despite the fact that the Syrian army has scored one victory after another on the field of battle. Yet there’s no visible prospect of a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Moreover, there are signs of the actual collapse of the Syrian state, which can quickly be torn into a number of semi-independent entities. Should this happen the massacre of the Syrian people will only intensify. The grip of the government of Bashar al-Assad is weakening as Damascus becomes increasingly dependent on its allies from abroad, especially volunteers from Iran and Iraq. Traditionally the most effective support Syria has is from the Lebanese Shia organization Hezbollah.
The central government is still in control of territory that remains home to two thirds of the population, but it is getting increasingly difficult to contain numerous offensives on several fronts. This statement refers to the fall of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour in the northern parts of Syria and military successes rebels have scored in the south. A huge problem is the depletion of human resources particularly among Alawite circles which have no way of replacing those fallen in battle, those who were most loyal to Assad. There is growing dissatisfaction within the government of Bashar al-Assad and the Alawite community caused by fact that the government is reluctant to use Sunnis in fighting at the most critical junctures out of fear of defections. Therefore, Alawites have been repeatedly asked to bear the brunt.
Another negative factor is the growing differences among Syrian elites. A clear sign of the growing contradictions in the Syrian military and political leadership is the death of the Head of the Syrian National Intelligence Agency, Rustum Ghazaleh, who was beaten by the bodyguard of head of the Military Security branch, Lt. Gen. Rafik Shehadeh. The latter of the two was later relieved from his position. Ghazaleh lost his life over a quarrel regarding Iranian military advisers that have been rapidly gaining power in Damascus. It is reported that Iranians prefer to help local militia forces instead of supporting regular Syrian army and national units. Iran seeks to transform those paramilitary groups in a local analogue of the Revolutionary Guards. But one of the key factors of the rock-solid stability of Bashar al-Assad regime was the consolidated position of the Syrian elites. Military and political leaders stood their ground as one not allowing external forces to split their ranks. The latest tragic events suggest that there’s doubts among some of Syria’s key security figures.
Under these conditions, if the regime faces certain difficulties, Assad, according to Israeli intelligence reports, will abandon Damascus and throw all of his remaining forces in to defend Latakia and the areas inhabited by Alawites. In this situation, when victory is no longer attainable, Assad’s chief supporter – Iran, may be the first to pack its things since Tehran will be intrested in concentrating on the more important issue – an agreement on its nuclear program. Then the concept of a “Syria without Assad” can be materialized in real life, however, the country will be split into enclaves along sectarian and ethnic lines. The collapse of the Syrian Arab Republic has already started. Territories controlled by various opposition groups and allies of the government are gradually being transformed into semi-independent enclaves. North-eastern regions of the country are now occupied by the Islamic State, while Jabhat al-Nusra has virtually established an Islamic Emirate in the governorate of Idlib. In the areas of Syria that are inhabited by Kurds, Kurdish quasi-states are being created. Under these circumstances, the areas that the government of Bashar al-Assad still controls may be narrowed to the territory of Damascus, Hama, Homs, Syria’s Mediterranean regions and Alawite communities.
A negative role is played here by external factors, namely the hostility of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The new king of the KSA, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, puts anti-Iranian motives at the forefront of his foreign policy, while considering the Syrian crisis as a means of preventing Iranian expansion in the Arab world. At the same time he started a military operation against the Houthis in Yemen to prevent Shia forces from reaching victory. In addition, in late April, the King appointed his nephew Muhammad bin Nayef, who previously served as Minister of Interior, to his current position of Crown Prince, while the position of Deputy Crown Prince is now occupied by the Defense Minister and king’s son Mohammed bin Salman. Both princes advocate tough security approaches both in domestic affairs and abroad. These facts are not increasing the chances of Syria’s survival.
Tayyip Erdogan, in his turn, has been playing an extremely negative role in the Syrian crisis, pushing the Arab monarchies to take even more decisive steps under the pretext that the United States is reluctant to force regime change in Damascus. During his meeting with king Salman, the Turkish president underlined the fact that Washington decided to cooperate with Tehran and Damascus in order to neutralize the Islamic State, which implies that Assad will stay. At the same time the Turkish leader expressed his utter disappointment with the failure of the US administration to implement a “no-fly zone” over Syrian territory.
Things are not going great for Assad in Syria as well. The White House has managed to rally opposing Sunni forces in the south. With the assistance of Jordan and the KSA Washington has managed to rally 58 different military units, which mostly adhere to the believes of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This tactics has already been recognized as a successful model and it will be moved up north, where the main role is to be played by Saudis and Turks. The Islamist groups have already established a strong footing in those regions, provided with a united headquarters in the form of the Jaish al-Fatah group which first demonstrated its ability to coordinate different groups during the battles for Idlib and Hama. Yet it’s curious that while the regional players are supporting radicals, Washington has only been arming the severely weakened moderate opposition.
It is clear that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have come to a consensus over the tactics needed to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, while leaving their views of the future Syrian government aside. Despite the possible struggle for power between them in Syria, these three are only concerned with urging Assad’s departure, while this process is artificially intensified for the operation to reach the final phase as quickly as possible. Arab and Israeli reports suggest that the Syrian government should fall in about 6-8 months. The above mentioned Jaish al-Fatah is directly controlled by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, therefore it will play a crucial role in this overthrow.
These activities are carried out behind Washington’s back, since the latter is now concerned with the creation of a moderate army, that will constitute an alternative to both the Syrian army and the Islamists. The Pentagon has officially initiated the training of opposition groups with the US government allocating some 500 million dollars to fulfill their need . Now a total of 400 militants are going to be trained under this program by American instructors. For comparison – Jaish al-Fatah has already acquired 30 thousand battle capable men.
The team of Riyadh, Doha and Ankara is rushing because of the ongoing attempts by the United States to continue cooperation with Tehran and Damascus in order to contain the Islamic State. It is also clear that any delay will be used by the Americans to build itself a loyal military force, which will be an influential player in a post-Assad Syria. The overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in the coming months, according to the Saudis, Qataris and Turks, will put the United States in a tight corner, and this will allow the above listed states to seriously weaken the growing Iranian influence in the region.
One thing is crystal clear – if Russia and Iran do not take urgent steps to rescue Assad, by end of the year the government in Damascus will be toppled. Urgent military assistance is crucial to counter the cunning plans of the KSA, Turkey and Qatar. There’s no place for personal ambitions in Syria today.
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”