In its eighth year, the Syrian conflict appears to be entering a new stage.
Foreign support for the regime of Bashar Assad, provided by Iran and its proxies and Russia, appears to have saved it from collapse. Its survival, in the immediate term, is no longer under threat.
The regime has developed a strategy of isolating and overcoming rebel pockets. This was employed in Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and has been used in Eastern Ghouta.
Rebels hold out in the south of the country and in Idlib governorate but the chance of their overthrowing and replacing the regime seems remote.
Those countries that backed the organised opposition demur when asked about Syria’s future. The United States, Britain and others that mounted programmes to equip and to arm rebel groups have dramatically cut back financial and material aid.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), controlling extensive territory east of the Euphrates, is increasingly open about its willingness to accommodate and even collaborate with the regime.
None of this means the conflict is over or that its result is no longer in question. Assad’s rule is still precarious. Pro-regime forces form a various and unstable coalition.
Assad has never altered his sole objective, which is to reassert regime rule over every inch of Syria. In a future when the guns fall silent with the regime unbeaten, Assad will attempt to realise this ambition. It will not be easy.
Syria’s economy has collapsed in wartime. Much of the country’s civil infrastructure has been destroyed or fallen into disrepair. Its major cities have been gutted, bombed to pieces or left to fall to ruin.
John Arterbury, a security analyst in Washington, said via social media that ‘a deeper collapse of the Syrian economy could trigger some level of in-fighting and instability that may pose challenges to the regime’s governance model’.
International organisations gather funds for Syria’s reconstruction. The regime hopes to secure its future by attracting capital. If it is given money for reconstruction, it will use calculated largesse to bolster its power, buttressed with the threat of withholding aid from those who resist its rule.
Even if it secures this financial leverage, the regime contends with a chronic shortage of manpower. Its armies have been diminished by defections and attrition. What economic activity it can muster suffers from the effects of Syria’s declining population. To supplement its regular military, the regime increasingly relies on militias of loyalists.
Many of these have been incorporated into a state-sponsored umbrella, the National Defence Forces (NDF) – a semi-successful compromise between lawlessness and enlistment. Loyalist militias rely on the state’s authority. Their actions, including many alleged war crimes, are frequently sanctioned by officialdom. These militias, despite their overt loyalty, are unruly.
Analyst Ryan O’Farrell said the militias’ ‘entire raison d’etre is the preservation of the regime’ but that ‘they can fight each other … which has happened on a few occasions’.
The militias bolster the regime, which, in turn, is bound to them.
‘The regime’s various predatory militias give it some security’, O’Farrell said.
Militias offer genuine, though unstable, support for the regime. This could diminish if the threat of regime collapse recedes. Opportunities for militias to enrich themselves or to turn to brigandage would weaken the regime’s already slack grasp on much of the territory it nominally governs.
The regime also relies on foreign support. This includes financial backing from Iran, as well as dependence on Russian air power.
Assad is backed by foreign fighters. An example is Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, which has been fighting for the regime for years.
Phillip Smyth, the Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said via e-mail that he estimates the number of fighters for Iran-sponsored militias at 16,000-28,000.
These fighters willingly serve as part of the pro-Assad coalition. They are happy to fight Syria’s opposition and jihadist factions. Their loyalty to Assad is less certain.
‘Iran-run militia groups are loyal to Iran and Tehran’s goals in Syria. Bashar Assad and his position in Syria is rarely even an afterthought’, said Smyth.
‘You can bet on Tehran understanding that, if they needed to, they could use those forces to send a signal to Damascus’, Smyth said.
The Assad regime is unstable. It is hampered by Syria’s economic collapse and its own manpower crisis. Though it is unlikely to suffer overthrow, its support is built on unruly domestic and foreign militias. The prospect of the regime exerting control over all of Syria is a profoundly unreal one. Yet, as it feels increasingly secure, there is no doubt it will persist in pursuit of this unlikely objective.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.