There are five reasons why Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime survives, says a prominent observer.
Regional and international strategic rivalries reinforce the stalemate; the regime has exported the crisis to its neighbors, the complexity of the end game; the divided opposition; and the regime’s retention of a significant base of support, writes Time’s Tony Karon.
“Assad retains the fierce loyalty of a hard core of Alawites, a community that sees its own fate tied to that of his regime, fearing at best, disenfranchisement, and at worst, brutal retribution, should the Sunni-led rebellion triumph,” he notes:
Far from being ground down by the attrition of more than a year of full-blown civil war, the regime’s core fighting forces remain more determined and fanatical than ever. Indeed, as the International Crisis Group recently noted, the regime’s control has at once diminished and hardened, its will and capacity to fight fueled by the sectarian character of the civil war.
Observers have expressed concern that the West’s failure to support democratic elements within the opposition is playing into the hands of radical Islamists.
Provision of technical assistance and even arms are needed to prevent extremists from filling a political vacuum, said Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US envoy to the UN and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
The US has offered to provide communications equipment and other forms of non-lethal assistance, but refuses to supply arms, at least openly.
With the formation of the Syrian Support Group, exiles and their allies have taken the initiative.
“If you keep giving people videos and cameras and satellite equipment so they can document how they are getting killed, it won’t stop the killing,” said Louay Sakka, one of the group’s eight board members, referring to the American aid. As for Mr. Assad’s loyalists, he added, “it’s only the language of force they understand.”
The New York Times reports that…
While maintaining good relations with the Obama administration, the group has also been a critic of the administration’s approach, with added credibility because of its ties inside Syria. Dr. Danan, for example, said President Obama’s warning that any use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would be “a red line” that could provoke intervention amounted to a “green light” for Mr. Assad to use as much conventional force as possible.
Administration officials say that outsourcing the supply of money and arms to the rebels maintains a crucial distinction that keeps American military fingerprints off a conflict that has already turned into a bloody civil war.
“It’s not for us to determine what the donations are used for,” said one official, who requested anonymity to discuss administration thinking, describing a plausible deniability that might not be plausible to all. “It could be for medical supplies.”
Arguably, Assad’s strongest asset is, as Karon notes, the opposition is not only deeply divided, it also lacks a clear strategy:
When France’s President François Hollande urged the Syrian opposition earlier this week to form a transitional government in exile that France and other Western governments would immediately recognize as the legitimate government of Syria, he seemed to have forgotten one of the golden rules of French cuisine: You can’t reheat a souffle. …. The idea was quickly pooh-poohed by U.S. officials, who branded it “premature” given the consistent failure of Syrian opposition groups, over 18 months of rebellion, to create a single unified leadership.
Washington’s response was immediately slammed by Syrian National Council (SNC) leader Abdelbaset Sieda, who accused the U.S. of indecisiveness, but his complaints would have been undermined by the fact that his group’s longtime spokeswoman Basma Kodmani resigned from the SNC on the same day, declaring that it had failed to earn “the required credibility and did not maintain the confidence of the people”. Indeed, despite its support from the French government and Turkey, the SNC appears to have been largely sidelined, having failed to win the support of unarmed opposition groups on the ground, or of the various armed formations that fight under the Free Syrian Army banner.
Besides having no umbrella political leadership, the rebellion also appears to have limited military coherence, with hundreds of disparate fighting formations making their own decisions at local level, and Islamist fighters — some of them foreign — making an increasingly visible showing.