BY LIZ SLY, WASHINGTON POST
Beirut: A surge of rebel gains in Syria is overturning long-held assumptions about the durability of President Bashar Al Assad’s regime, which now appears in greater peril than at any time in the past three years.
The capture on April 25 of the town of Jisr Al Shughour in northern Idlib province was just the latest in a string of battlefield victories by rebel forces, which have made significant advances in both the north and the south of the country.
As was the case in the capital of Idlib province last month, government defences in Jisr Al Shughour crumbled after just a few days of fighting, pointing as much to the growing weakness of regime forces as the revival of the opposition.
The battlefield shifts come at a time when the Obama administration has set aside Daesh (IS) in Syria to focus on its chief priorities: defeating Daesh in Iraq and concluding a nuclear deal with Iran.
Yet the pace of events in Syria may force the United States to refocus on the unresolved war, which remains at the heart of the turmoil engulfing the Middle East, analysts say. Iran backs Al Assad, Saudi Arabia backs the rebels, and a shift in the balance of power in Syria could have profound repercussions for the conflicts in Iraq and Yemen.
“We’re seeing a game changer right now in Syria,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist. “I think we are going to see an end to the Al Assad regime, and we have to think now about what will happen the day after, because the day after is near.”
Other observers say the prospect of a government collapse in Damascus is still remote. The capital is well defended, and the rebels’ gains have come mostly on the periphery of the country, where the regime’s supply lines are stretched.
But perceptions that Al Assad will survive indefinitely or serve at least as an interim counterbalance to Daesh and its strongholds in northeastern Syria are in doubt, said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The growing strains on Al Assad’s manpower and resources “are becoming extremely obvious, and the magnitude of his losses are now too big to hide,” Hokayem said.
“This destroys the narrative that he is winning, which he was counting on, and also the argument that he is the best option against Daesh,” the analyst added. “If he’s not able to take on or even defend against the rebels, he’s going to have a hard time presenting himself as able to fight Daesh.”
The revival of rebel fortunes is attributed to a large degree on the recent rapprochement between a newly assertive Saudi Arabia and its erstwhile rivals for influence over the rebels — Turkey and Qatar.
Since inheriting the throne in January, Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud has moved forcefully to challenge the expanding regional influence of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s biggest foe, most publicly by embarking on an air war against Houthi militiamen in Yemen. He has also acted to shore up the flagging and deeply divided rebels in Syria against the Iranian-backed Al Assad, in coordination with Qatar and Turkey, Khashoggi said.
|Saudi Arabian air strike|
The result has been an unexpectedly cohesive rebel coalition called the Army of Conquest that is made up of Al Qaida affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra, an assortment of mostly Islamist brigades, and a small number of more moderate battalions. The coalition, which launched last month, has proved more effective than expected.
After seizing most of Idlib province in recent weeks, the rebels are pressing south toward the government strongholds of Hama and Homs and are threatening the Al Assad family’s coastal heartland of Latakia. A separate, more moderate rebel coalition has been making swift advances in the south, challenging government control over the key provincial capital of Daraa and making progress north toward Damascus.
Just as significantly, government forces have been proving increasingly ineffective. The collapse of two much-trumpeted offensives earlier this year, in southern Syria and in Aleppo, presaged the success of the recent rebel offensives, suggesting that even if the government can remain in control in Damascus, its chances of regaining the rest of the country are slipping.
There are signs that the regime itself is fraying under the strain of the four-year-old war. On Friday, pro-government news outlets reported the death of political security director Rustom Gazaleh, a longtime Al Assad stalwart, after months of rumours that he had fallen out with the regime, been badly beaten up by a rival and was languishing in hospital.
The reports followed the firing last month of the military intelligence chief, Rafiq Shehadeh, another inner-circle loyalist. Western diplomats monitoring events in Syria from Beirut say the two men appear to have clashed with the Al Assad family over the growing battlefield role played by Iran.
The tensions are reaching into the heart of the Al Assad family, whose four-decade-old rule had seemed unshakeable until the revolt erupted in 2011.
Hafez Makhlouf, Al Assad’s cousin, was fired late last year as head of security in the province of Damascus and has since fled the country, the diplomats say. Another cousin, Munzer Al Assad, was detained this month amid rumours that he had been plotting a coup.
Sudden collapse possible
“It looks like there are major rifts going on inside the Al Assad regime,” one of the diplomats said. “A military collapse on the regime side is not impossible.”
Much will depend on Iran, which has stepped up in the past to dispatch men, money and arms whenever Al Assad seemed to be faltering. But Iran is stretched, too, by the economic effects of continued international sanctions and by the competing demands of the war next door in Iraq, which has diverted some of the Iraqi militias that had been fighting for the regime in Syria.
In a commentary for the Middle East Institute in the past week, Robert Ford, a former US envoy to Syria, said a regime collapse cannot be ruled out. The regime’s schisms, its battlefield setbacks and its manpower shortages “are all signs of weakness,” he wrote. “We may be seeing signs of the beginning of their end.”
That's the big question. What or who will take Al Assad's place if and when he falls? Will he align with Iran, with Saudi Arabia, with Daesh, or none of the above? The only thing I would take odds on right now, is that whatever happens, it will probably be worse than anyone expects. Wait, darn, my glass is half empty already.