Three years after revolt to topple him began, Assad retains grip on power

With revolt against him crumbling and his foes divided three years on, Syrian leader can likely pacify enough of the country to claim victory

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 5:54am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 5:54am

Three years into the revolt against his rule, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is in a stronger position than ever before to quell the rebellion against his rule by Syrians who rose up to challenge his hold on power, first with peaceful protests and later with arms.

Aided by the steadfast support of his allies and the deepening disarray of his foes, Assad is pressing ahead with plans to be re-elected to a third seven-year term this summer while sustaining intense military pressure intended to crush his opponents.

The strategy is not new, but in recent months it has started to yield tangible progress in the form of slow but steady gains on several key fronts on the battlefield that call into question long-held perceptions of a stalemate.

Most notably, the government has pushed the rebels back or squeezed them into isolated pockets in large swathes of the territory surrounding Damascus, diminishing prospects that the opposition will soon be in a position to seriously threaten the capital or topple the regime.

For those who joined the effort to unseat Assad three years ago, flush with the fervour of the Arab spring protests sweeping the region, the realisation that the rebellion is faltering is "deeply depressing", said Abu Emad, a student activist who has watched as the government has steadily crushed the armed rebellion in his hometown of Homs, which was once regarded as the epicentre of the revolt.

Yesterday marked the third anniversary of the initially tentative anti-government demonstrations that spiralled into civil war, and many Syrians are wondering whether the 146,000 deaths and the displacement of millions of people were worth the price, he said. "More than ever there is no hope. Not on the ground and not politically," Abu Emad said, using a pseudonym to protect his identity. "For the rebels to win, it will take a miracle."

Meanwhile, the poorly armed and highly disorganised rebels have not launched a significant offensive or captured an important military facility since the fall of Menagh air base in northern Aleppo province in the summer.

Despite some scattered sightings of Chinese-made antitank weapons that were recorded and then posted on the internet as YouTube videos, there is no indication of any influx of new weapons sufficient to make a difference to the balance of power on the ground, said Jeffrey White, defence analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The chances that the government will be able to restore its authority over all the far-flung parts of the country that have slipped beyond its control seem remote. But the likelihood is growing that Assad will be able to pacify enough of the country to sustain his hold on power and claim victory, White said.

"The possibility of the regime winning in a real sense is there," he said. "Unless the rebels can change the situation on the ground in some way, the regime is going to keep grinding them down."

Deepening rifts among the rebels have further enhanced the government's prospects. A revolt in January by an assortment of diverse rebel groups against the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria led to widespread bloodshed across northern Syria, most of which has been under rebel control for the past two years.

The rebel landscape has since continued to fragment. Al-Qaeda's central command repudiated the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, triggering a rift between that group and al-Qaeda's main Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, that has erupted in fighting in the east of the country.

The divisions have diverted resources and attention from the effort to dislodge Assad.

Meanwhile, the preparations are gathering pace in Damascus for presidential elections due by July under the terms of Syria's current constitution.

A new election law passed by Syria's parliament last week permits challengers to Assad for the first time - but under restrictions that will preclude serious opposition contenders. Candidates must secure support from the parliament, which is dominated by Assad's Baath Party, and have remained in residence in Syria for the past 10 years.


Syria's civil war toll rising

  • Every minute: Three Syrians become refugees abroad.

    About 2.5 million people have sought refuge outside the country, according to the United Nations. About 1.5 million of those fled in the past year - 4,110 a day. Syria's neighbours are poorly equipped to deal with the influx, and humanitarian agencies face huge funding shortfalls.

  • Every two minutes: Eight children inside Syria are forced to flee from their homes.

    The number of displaced children in Syria has more than tripled in the past year, from 920,000 to nearly 3 million, according to Unicef. In its latest report, the agency warned of a lost generation as many struggle to find food and to access health care and go without schooling.

  • Every 10 minutes: One person dies.

    More than 140,000 people have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition group that tracks the death toll. In the past year, deaths have averaged more than 170 a day, it says. The United Nations has given up counting.