A series of crucial defeats of the Syrian army has laid to rest any illusions that the government in Damascus is in control of its country. By spreading his forces thinly across Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has drastically reduced his capacity to win decisive battles, and he is now being forced to evacuate wide areas of the country to concentrate his army around Damascus and the Alawite enclave in the northwest.
As it becomes clear that Assad is likely to lose the war, his closest allies — as well as world powers and regional players — are beginning to plan for the end game.
In late May, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, gave a speech that spoke volumes about the impact of the Syrian war on his organisation.
“The threat we face is existential...We now have three options: to expand the war and fight far more than we have fought in the last four years, to capitulate and be slaughtered, or to disperse throughout the world, walking humiliated and purposeless from catastrophe to catastrophe.”More than 3000 Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria, and a further 4000 have been injured. Syrian militants, including Islamic State fighters, have penetrated Lebanon, threatening to rekindle the country’s ethnic war and undermining Hezbollah’s legitimacy as the guarantor of its security. Assad’s fall would deny the organisation its vital logistic hinterland in Syria, making it vulnerable to challenges by insurgent Sunni militias.
Iran, too, is likely to face a reckoning, as its ally in Damascus approaches defeat. The country’s strategic calculations are bound to have been affected by the ascension of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to the Saudi throne, a real game changer that has resulted in a shift of alliances among the region’s Sunni powers. Stronger ties among Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar — and the spectacular successes of the latter’s Sunni proxies in Syria — will put pressure on Iran to cut Assad loose or risk being drawn even deeper into the Syrian quagmire.
The regional proxy war between the Iran-backed Assad government and Sunni-backed rebels has largely undermined America’s influence on the course of events in Syria. Sunni fighters have ignored US calls to focus on fighting Islamic State instead of the Assad regime. In fact, the most effective fighting force in the country is Jaish al-Fatah — The Army of Conquest — a collection of Sunni rebel groups, some of which the US considers to be terrorist organisations.
The US is rightly worried that a victory by Jaish al-Fatah and others might empower anti-Western elements in Syria. Drawing from its sad experience in Iraq, the US government fears that Assad’s fall would be quickly followed by the collapse of the Syrian army, leaving the country without a stabilising force. Rather than turning their attention to Islamic State, the fractious victors would most likely turn on one another. As in Libya, the fighting would make the country ungovernable.
Meanwhile, Russia, which considers the naval base of Tartus to be strategically vital, can be counted on to do all it can to prevent a total defeat of the regime. When Secretary of State John Kerry proposed, at a meeting last May, a joint international approach to contain the conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin was not interested. But the Russian regime is not blind to the realities of the battlefield. Following the loss of the city of Palmyra to Islamic State, families of Russian advisers began to be repatriated. In preparation for a possible future without Assad, the Kremlin is now trying to gain influence in opposition groups.
For now, Assad is doing his best to cling to power. A power-sharing agreement is all but unthinkable, and Syria’s geography is not well suited to an orderly division along sectarian lines. Assad’s war aims have been reduced to avoiding decisive defeat and gaining international legitimacy, in the hope of a favourable political solution. The rise of Islamic State did lend support to the government’s claims that Syria risks being taken over by terrorist groups; nonetheless, the regime is finding itself increasingly isolated.
Assad’s final days are unlikely to be pretty. The tight-knit members of his clan, his political allies, and many members of the Alawite minority will be fighting for their survival. Unless a political solution is somehow found, Syria’s fate will come down to the prophetic words a Sunni frontline fighter from Homs told a German reporter in 2012. “It’s a question of numbers,” he said. “There are 18 million Sunnis against him. Assad must kill them all. Otherwise, we’ll win and kill him and his henchmen.”
*Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace.