As the international community remains stymied over how to resolve the conflict in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad must feel confident.
Warning from European nations and the United States that Assad’s downfall was but a matter of time have been silenced in recent weeks. China’s and Russia’s endorsement of United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan provided the world with a common set of goals and aspirations on the crisis. Yet divisions over how to implement Annan’s proposals remain, as well as questions as to whether the Syrian strongman is actually sincere in carrying out the strategy.
Indeed, the past two months for Assad and his regime have not been all that bad from a military standpoint.
When the year started, the Syrian security forces were clearly in over their heads, with dozens of ordinary conscript soldiers joining the ranks of the opposition every day and rebels taking territory on the outskirts of Damascus.
Such victories are now a thing of the past. The Syrian army has since regained most of that territory. Cities that were previously centers of anti-Assad resistance, including Daraa, Deir ez-Zor, Hama, Homs and Idlib, are now either under siege by government forces or partially destroyed from nonstop artillery attacks.
The last string of military victories by Assad’s forces, first in Homs and then in Idlib Province, have scattered armed defectors and made their jobs of launching coordinated and concerted attacks against regime targets far more difficult. The Syrian government is so confident about its position that it has declared the armed revolt entirely over.
That pronouncement is, of course, far from accurate. The Free Syrian Army, the main group responsible for attacks on security personnel, may be weakened but it isn’t thinking about handing over its weapons or giving up.
Therein lies the most obvious problem with Annan’s six-point peace plan. If the rebels are still committed to the fight, Assad will have no reason to follow the accord by pulling back his military units.
The president clearly thinks he is winning this conflict. From the state of his armed forces, which remain integrated, connected and loyal to the regime, it is difficult for Arab and Western nations to refute that assertion.
This is especially true when the political opposition, led by the Syrian National Council that sits in Istanbul, is divided among themselves over key questions, like whether sending weapons to anti-Assad fighters is the right course of action.
The dedication of Assad’s military is only one factor in the regime’s short-term successes since February. The other part of the equation concerns the inability of Assad’s opponents to stop squabbling among themselves over leadership roles, control over military defectors and public recognition. Unless Syria’s diffuse opposition movement can come together on a strategy and bridge differences on some of the most fundamental issues, their chances of remaking Syria into an accountable and pluralistic democracy will remain an utopian hope rather than a reasonable possibility.
Overthrowing a dictator is not a long-term strategy for the future. This will only come with a comprehensive plan that is acceptable enough to attract all of the opposition’s councils, figureheads and activists.