A spate of reports have emerged highlighting President Bashar al-Assad’s weakening grip on power over war torn Syria. These reports have largely been driven by recent opposition gains — in a northern governorate capital and a southern border crossing — and reports of shakeups at the top of Syrian security institutions.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford went as far as to pen an article late last week, saying, “We may be seeing signs of the beginning of their [the regime’s] end.”
But predicting the regime’s downfall may still be premature. “I don’t think [Assad will fall] soon,” Dr. Haytham Mouzahem, the director at the Beirut Center for Middle East Studies, told ThinkProgress. He said any solution would require a consensus between international actors and would likely take at least a couple years.
“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,” the Washington Post’s Liz Sly reported Sunday.
Assad succeeded his father Hafez in 2000. Despite initial attempts at reforming the harsh security state, Assad has largely followed the path trekked by his late father in responding to largely peaceful uprisings with brutal force. The religiously diverse country is divided over their support for Assad, largely by sect but also by economic class.
Opponents cite the regime’s horrendous record on human rights. They’ve been accused of operating vicious torture centers around the country by Human Rights Watch and have a history of regularly jailing political opponents. This has made finding a successor outside the Assad inner circle difficult as many of the opposition’s leading candidates have spent large parts of their lives in exile.
Assad supporters are largely worried about what is to come. They fear Assad could be replaced by an even more violent presence like the self-labelled Islamic State or a chaotic vacuum like what is currently taking place in Libya.
Assad’s regime is currently backed by Russia and Iran and that support has reinforced the fight against rebels looking to end the Assad family’s 40-plus-year reign. The two nations don’t appear to be ready to give up on Assad just yet despite his forces’ recent loses in Idlib and Syria’s sole border crossing with Jordan.
Some of these recent developments echo predictions from mid-2012, when a wide-range of international intelligence and military figures said Assad’s demise was only a matter of time. Assad dug in and fought back with the help of regional militias from Lebanon and Iraq. Various counterinsurgency operations in 2014 saw the Syrian Army, with the help of Hezbollah, reclaim large swathes of land. The opposition was divided — fighting the regime on one front and the Islamic State on another.
“Assad has been winning mainly due to the fragmentation of the other side and the lack of skill and experience on the other side,” Randa Slim, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, told Middle East Eye.
Assad appeared confident of victory over the opposition, especially as the Obama administration became consumed by a military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The recent shift of momentum on the ground in Syria is likely related to regional developments. “Iran is stretched…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 Shiite militias that had been fighting for the regime in Syria,” the Washington Post reported.
The terrorism monitoring Soufan Group released an intel brief on Tuesday that read:
…the Assad regime is passing through a difficult time. The army has been suffering since December from a high rate of casualties, desertions, and draft dodging. And although some Iraqi Shi’a militias have returned to Damascus, there are fewer foreign troops fighting on the side of the regime than there were throughout most of last year.
Additionally, Saudi Arabia’s new king has prioritized countering Iran’s regional influence. This has led them to put an emphasis on backing rebel forces in Syria against Assad, one of Iran’s principal regional allies.
There are also internal problems plaguing Assad. The regime announced in March that Political Security Director Rustum Ghazaleh and Military Intelligence Chief Rafiq Shehadeh had been fired. Both had been members of Assad’s inner circle and Ghazaleh has since succumbed to injuries after a “mysterious incident,” Al-Monitor reported.
While it’s clear Assad’s position has weakened, and may be at its most vulnerable to date, the Syrian civil war has been turned on its head before. The opposition is making important gains and seems to be coming together after being hindered by long periods of fragmentation meaning Assad’s end could soon be nigh.