Three years, 150,000 deaths, and 9 million Syrian refugees later, is the civil war in Syria starting to turn a corner? Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Nasrallah, his buddy in Lebanon who holds the top leadership position in Hezbollah, certainly seem to think so. All you need to do is ask them, and both will tell you that the progression of the war is not only going their way, but that their opponents in the Syrian opposition will lose the offensive capability that it now has by the end of this year.
Of course, none of us have any independent confirmation as to precisely what Assad and Nasrallah are thinking and saying. We can only rely on comments from people who are either personally close to the two men or reports from the lucky journalist who scores an exclusive interview at just the right time (hello Charlie Rose!). Yet, depending on the circumstances, even second and third-hand accounts are more satisfying than silence -- any information about the world's worst humanitarian calamity in the 21st Century is good information for those monitoring Syria's war.
You might not know who Sergei Stepashin is (hint: He's Russian), and in many ways, it doesn't matter. All that matters is what he said to reporters after he visited Assad for talks on economic relations between Moscow and Damascus -- that is, Assad is bold and confident enough to declare victory by the end of this year.
A former Russian prime minister who recently met Bashar Al Assad said the Syrian president told him that much of the fighting in the country's civil war would be over by the end of the year, Itar-Tass news agency reported on Monday.
Russia has been Al Assad's most powerful supporter during the three-year conflict that activists say has killed more than 150,000 people, blocking Western and Arab efforts to drive him from power.
Sergei Stepashin, who served as prime minister in 1999 under then-President Boris Yeltsin and now heads a charitable organisation, met Al Assad in Damascus last week during a visit to the Middle East, according to Russian news reports.
"To my question about how military issues were going, this is what [Al] Assad said: 'This year the active phase of military action in Syria will be ended. After that we will have to shift to what we have been doing all the time -- fighting terrorists'," state-run Itar-Tass quoted Stepashin as saying.
Nasrallah, the big-wig in Hezbollah, seems to carry the same belief of his friend in Syria. In an interview to Lebanese newspaper al-Safir, Nasrallah predicted that the Syrian Government is now strong enough to withstand any full-scale assault that the armed opposition is preparing in the future. President Obama used to say that it's only a question of when, not if, Assad will fall. Nasrallah's is exactly the opposite: the only question now is when Bashar al-Assad's army will extinguish the remnants of the rebels.
Here are a few select quotes, courtesy of AFP:
"In my opinion, the phase of bringing down the regime or bringing down the state is over."
"I think we have passed the danger of division [of the country]."
"They [the rebels] cannot overthrow the regime, but they can wage a war of attrition."
"In my view, the pressure on the regime in the coming phase will be less than in the past three years, in terms of political pressure, media pressure and pressure on the ground."
The most realistic thing to do with these comments would be to discard them where they belong -- in the trash bin of two men who have far too much at stake in the conflict to present the slightest weakness. But taken in its appropriate context, and at a time when the Syrian army and its Hezbollah allies are consolidating their control of Damascus and its suburbsand sweeping up victories in the Qalamoun region -- a region that was once a reliable rebel smuggling point -- these comments exhibit an aura of absolute confidence around Assad and Nasrallah. Both are more than happy with the current balance of power on the battlefield, and they are both clearly pleased that they have managed to defy and outlast western expectations of their demise.
The Obama administration's entire Syria policy rests on the foundation that Assad's internal calculation needs to change. A willingness by Assad to participate in serious and meaningful negotiations is the objective of this policy. Right now, that foundation is crumbling into dust. For Assad, negotiating is a process to be laughed at, because the Syrian army is well on its way to winning the war without them .