Reports of Assad's (Pending) Demise May be Greatly Exaggerated

04/28/2015 09:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015

The end is near in Syria -- that is the optimistic headline emerging from Western news sources like the Guardian and Washington Post, as a drumbeat of good news emerges from the north that a tipping point to this war may be underfoot. Reports that opposition forces aligned with Nusra Front have seized more towns in Idlib province are fueling speculation that the Assad regime is on its last legs.

While this is an encouraging sign, the trouble is we've seen this movie before. Several times in the past Western analysts have predicted the imminent fall of Assad, only to see the Syrian dictator reemerge stronger. Way back in July 2012, after four members of Assad's inner circle were killed by rebels, a Stratfor strategist breathlessly proclaimed "We have entered the endgame in Syria." The Financial Times declared "It cannot be long now before Mr. Assad himself -- in one form or another -- departs the scene."

Indeed, we've seen elite defections before, military shakeups, and rebel victories both minor and major, only to see Assad retain his grip on power. His forces, albeit stretched thin, still control vast swaths of Syria, especially in the strategically crucial center. His reliance on barrel bombs in the north has reduced Aleppo to rubble. And he does not need Idlib, a province next to Aleppo, to ensure his survival (It is important only because of its position along Turkey's southern flank and its symbolic value).

The tell-tail signs that regime change might be imminent are manifold: First, Iran would have to reckon that Assad may be expendable. That is the hunch of Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, who believes that Iran might cut a deal so long as it retains a transit corridor thru Syria to its proxies in Lebanon. Were Russia and Iran to abandon Assad, the house of cards in Damascus would collapse. Second, a ramping up of U.S.-led military pressure might signal to regime supporters that the end is near. This does not require sending in the Fifth Fleet, but might entail boosting offensive military aid to the opposition -- let's scrap this notion of only supporting the vetted "moderate" opposition, which is a meaningless term during times of war -- an air campaign against regime targets closer to Damascus, and potentially a de facto no-fly zone and humanitarian corridor in the north. Finally, the rebels would have to seize cities further south, such as Hama, Homs, or Latakia.

Yet none of the above appears likely, given distractions elsewhere (in Yemen, Ukraine, and so forth). As such, the war is at a stalemate. ISIS, despite losing Kobane to U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, still controls large swaths of territory. U.S.-led airpower has been unable to dislodge its gains. On the flipside, the Assad regime can safely portray the war as going its way. Its military has focused mostly on the strategic belt of land that stretches from Dara in the south to Aleppo in the north, ceding large chunks of (mostly unpopulated) territory near Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to ISIS forces. Its forces are stretched too thin, even despite reinforcements from Iran and Lebanon, to control the whole country. In other words, neither side can credibly defeat the other side at this stage in the conflict, yet nor can they credibly accept a peace plan or amnesty, as Assad offered in his Foreign Affairs interview. This is what the scholar Nazih Richani calls a "comfortable impasse" -- both sides can withstand untold levels of violence and keep fighting because time remains their most precious asset.

Assad has survived principally for three reasons: First, he has deployed indiscriminate violence in places where he has already lost the populace -- parts of Aleppo, the Damascus suburbs (and Palestinian camps), and so forth -- the idea presumably being to make the war so painful in opposition-controlled areas that civilians turn against the rebels. Second, he has benefited from a weak-kneed and divided West, led by a speak-loudly-and-carry-a-small-stick Obama administration. Third, Assad has enjoyed a vital lifeline from his outside backers. Whenever his army levels have risen or fallen, he has turned outward (namely Iran and Lebanon), as well as inward to local Sunni militias at times (though whose loyalty is more questionable) to replenish his military ranks.

Assad has also benefited from Washington's inability to forge a consistent policy. Some administration officials have called for the West to back the side most likely to win, and they believe this will be Assad. Yet this prediction, given recent rebel advances, looks far from certain. Assad has shown little ability to control territory far from Damascus, much less even the capital's restive Christian and Sunni-majority suburbs. He is facing a barrage of attacks from Israeli forces in Quneitra, Al Nusra-led forces in the north, and ISIS forces from the east. His invincibility looks awfully suspect.

Yet some in Washington propose keeping Assad in power because they believe that removing him would unleash a kind of Libya-like anarchy or usher in Benghazi-style attacks against American targets. A similar viewpoint holds that Syria, given its strategic location along Israel's border and the support it enjoys from Iran, makes it more combustible and that leaving Assad in place is the least bad option. Yet this viewpoint paints a rose-tinted picture of prewar Syria and glosses over the fact that Assad was routinely complicit in the assassination of Lebanese politicians, the building of a dormant nuclear reactor (which the Israelis leveled in 2007), and installing a revolving door of Islamist rebels crossing into Iraq to fight US forces. Leaving Assad in power would only further embolden such actions.

Still, others are motivated by a perverse kind of "enemy of my enemy is my friend" logic: Because ISIS is Public Enemy Number One at the moment, it is far better to have Assad's troops, along with their Iranian and Hezbollah allies, doing the dying. By removing Assad, moreover, we might embolden the Islamists, which could conceivably establish either a caliphate smack dab in the heart of the Middle East or a scenario reminiscent of Afghanistan under the Taliban. A Rand Study concluded as much, that Assad's removal would be a "worst possible outcome." Yet we know ISIS already controls nearly half of Syria, even if it the more sparsely populated half. So there is already a huge security vacuum in Syria, even with Assad still nominally in power.

We should also shelve the "no military solutions" mantra, which essentially tells our enemies we are unwilling to escalate so just hold tight. By effectively abandoning the opposition, moreover, we'd be reversing all the gains we've made, however incremental, and further erode our credibility with our other allies fighting protracted civil wars in Ukraine, Nigeria, and elsewhere, while signaling to our enemies a rudderless strategy. Instead, to signal strength we should get more serious about arming the Syrian opposition, along with anyone else willing to fight Assad. Unlike in, say, Ukraine, it's far from clear that Russia or Iran will go to their grave to bail out Assad. Were he to suffer a series of setbacks and cede control of major cities, such as Homs or Hama, the balance could tip in the opposition's favor. The fall of Idlib is a step in the right direction.

But the real question is: Given this potential power shift in the north, what should Washington do? Going forward, our policy should focus on three things. First, instead of appearing to back Assad, we should double-down on our support for Syria's (admittedly still fractured) opposition, which is as much a consequence of our inaction as it is a cause. Winning the war will require cobbling together a loose yet strategic coalition of NATO and Arab allies to apply more direct and targeted military pressure, not just against ISIS but also against Assad (A welcome sign is the change of leadership in Saudi Arabia and its rapprochement with Turkey, both sworn enemies of Assad). This will require convincing other allies in the region that Assad is the fuel that keeps groups like ISIS from flaming out. Nor should we tie our hands by signaling our unwillingness to deploy ground forces, or rule out the use of Special Forces in Syria. Of course this is difficult to do during the posturing of an upcoming presidential election cycle, but all options should remain on the table. We should stop fooling ourselves that Syria is a war we can win with a few airstrikes.

Nor should we close the door to a peaceful negotiation or grand bargain, but the conditions are not ripe yet. Assad recently said he supports political dialogue -- "We are [willing] to meet with everyone," he told Foreign Affairs. "We don't have conditions." But he has not honored past ceasefires, like the one brokered by the UN in Aleppo. During past "dialogues" in Geneva, his forces actually ratcheted up their campaign of terror, which fed the narrative that the regime was not serious about peace.

To date Assad has reckoned that the longer the war drags on the longer he can wait out the opposition. And History may be on his side, which is why Assad appears to be fighting this war more as a protracted insurgency, rather than as a conventional civil war. For example, he continues to rely on paramilitary forces such as plain-clothed shabiha and unconventional weaponry such as crude barrel bombs. The lines of control appear to be increasingly more fluid, less fixed, and fought primarily in urban centers, indicating a protracted insurgency. As Duke's Laia Balcells and Yale's Stathis Kalyvas have found, such insurgency-like conflicts last an estimated 113 months as opposed to 40 months for conventional civil wars, and are twice as likely to be won by the government. Moreover, by drawing in more foreign fighters, Assad's 2011 prophecy that he is fighting radical jihadism has largely become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Moreover, given Syria's so-called "strategic depth" -- safe zones that opposition fighters can retreat to beyond Syria's borders -- we can expect a protracted conflict with the potential to drag on indefinitely. A case in point is Colombia's or Burma's decades-long civil wars, whereby fighters retreated across borders. Likewise, Syrian rebels can easily decamp into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, where ISIS rebels already control large swathes of territory. When we think of civil wars ending with a government military victory, there must be some way to contain the opposition to a finite area to either force surrender or literally wipe them out. Assad cannot force IS into a corner because Syria, in effect, has no corners.

So if neither side can win a decisive military victory, shouldn't this create the conditions of what civil war scholars call a "mutually hurting military stalemate," and thus make the timing ripe for peace talks? Negotiated settlements of civil wars have become more common, largely due to the end of the Cold War proxy-style conflicts and the expanded role of UN peacekeeping missions. But the empirical record of negotiated settlements sticking remains uneven at best. If anything, stalemates are emerging as the new norm among civil wars, due to the reemergence of proxy war-like dynamics and the inability of either side to win decisively early on. There are still too many unresolved credible commitment issues (i.e. that opposition fighters would be imprisoned, tortured or killed if they lay down their weapons; the same is probably true of government forces). In such a stalemated situation like Syria's, neither side can afford to lose.

Washington must realize that the only way to defeat ISIS is by paradoxically defeating the Assad regime first. That is because the group feeds off the narrative that the West is siding with Shiite dictators from Damascus to Tehran at the expense of a marginalized Sunni population. Its narrative of the conflict is one of U.S. neglect or tacit support of a regime that has slaughtered over 200,000 of its own citizens (which incidentally dwarfs the number of Muslims killed by any other army). Instead, the U.S. must be clear it supports the wishes of the Syrian people -- otherwise their recourse will be to side with radical groups that offer some protection against the murderous rampage of Assad's forces. By even being perceived as backing Assad, we are only making more enemies among Syrians, especially its majority Sunni community, thereby fueling more recruits for radical groups like ISIS.

In short, we have seen momentum swings several times since 2011, and we have responded with rhetorical support for the regime's demise unmatched by concrete action (the fig leaf of peace negotiations in Geneva does not count). Nobody believes in red lines any more. So our course of action, provided we support an opposition (even one aligned with Al Nusra Front) as it makes greater inroads again regime-controlled territory, would be to present Assad with a fait accompli. The terms of such an agreement should let him leave power quietly, create a transitional power-sharing arrangement, and call on all parties -- including all 5000-plus militias -- to cease fighting. Following such an agreement, there should be no repeat of the post-2003 de-Baathification fiasco in Syria, given the desperate need for technocratic know-how to keep its institutions functioning.

To be sure, such an agreement is a long shot and one riddled with spoilers on both sides (and externally). Syria could easily descend back into a civil war, yet arguably it is hard to imagine a situation worse than the past few years of fighting. The conflict itself, moreover, is a giant recruitment poster for groups like ISIS. An implicit end to the war would weaken Islamists, not vice versa. Some might say that Syria may not be worth saving, at least not in its current configuration, given its fractious Kurdish, Christian and Alawite minorities, and so the map should be redrawn to reflect these divisions. That may eventually be needed (and contingent on how Iraq shapes up), but redrawing the borders should wait till after the wounds have time to heal.

The trend lines of the past few weeks in Syria are encouraging, but we've been here before. It is not too late to help the opposition finally depose Assad.

[This post originally appeared in Cicero Magazine]