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Who is Winning the War in Syria

Syria’s War of Attrition

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Rebels of the Free Syrian Army take cover in the market square from exploding shells fired by government tanks that have advanced into Saraquib city on April 9, 2012
John Cantlie/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Who is winning the civil war in Syria: the regime of President Bashar al-Assad or Syria’s disparate opposition? Assad’s survival capacity has been widely underestimated, but his forces have nevertheless lost large parts of the country. A de-facto division of Syria between warring parties now looks like a realistic possibility.

The Balance of Power: Comparison

The Assad’s Camp
  • Territorial Control: Syrian government troops have managed to hold on to most major urban centers, but large parts of the countryside are either in rebel hands, or a heavily contested no-man zone. The pro-Assad forces have a strong grip on the capital Damascus in the south, central Syria with the Homs province, and the Mediterranean coast in the west. The government controls key strategic routes connecting the capital with the coastline and with the Jordanian border in the south, ensuring the survival of the regime.

  • Military Power: Syria’s regular armed forces have been stretched thin by the widespread rebellion, suffering heavy casualties from daily ambushes and bomb attacks. However, the elite units numbering about 50 000 men are well-equipped, manned by Alawite loyalists from Assad’s home region, and backed by air support and heavy artillery. Plus, the regime has organized tens of thousands of supporters into paramilitary units that could continue the fight even if Assad himself were to lose control of the capital.

  • Organization: The regime’s inner circle has tight control over the armed forces and the intelligence apparatus, with the command-and-control structures basically intact. State institutions still operate in government-held territory. The economy is in shambles, but Assad’s foreign allies are supplying enough cash for the government to continue importing basic commodities and paying off public sector employees.

The Rebels

  • Territorial Control: The rebels have carved out a strong presence in the north and the east of the country, supplied with weapons by opposition supporters based in neighboring Turkey and Lebanon. Roughly half of Syria’s commercial capital Aleppo is in the hands of the opposition, along with strongholds in the suburbs of Damascus. There are also pockets or rebel resistance in the central Homs province and in Daraa province in the south, leaving few safe places for government troops.

  • Military Power: Most rebel units are lightly armed and possess little in the way of anti-tank and anti-aircraft capacity. Plenty of heavy weaponry was looted from captured army bases, but on the whole the rebels remain vastly outgunned by the pro-government forces. The opposition has resorted to guerilla tactics, attacking isolated army outposts and key supply lines, gradually seizing territory from overstretched government troops.

  • Organization: The rebels have no joint military command and no political organization that could set up nationwide parallel government structures. Hundreds of militias operate independently and tension is growing between rival commanders, giving the regime a critical operational advantage. Still, the more successful rebel groups have integrated into the local economy, securing a steady source of revenue. Most oil fields in Syria’s east are under rebel control, giving local militias there handsome profits that can be invested in fresh fighters and weapons.

War of Attrition: No Victor in Sight

The country looks increasingly divided between the government-controlled center and west, and rebel areas in the north and the east. The battle lines are still shifting heavily, of course. The regime is fighting a bitter battle to hold on to parts of Aleppo in the north, and the rebels regularly harass government troops on the outskirts of the capital. But neither side looks likely to prevail militarily in the near future.

With the US having no appetite for intervention, Assad may have good reason to believe that time is on his side. Weapons are flowing in from Russia and Iran, and fighters from the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah have bolstered Syrian government troops in operations alongside the Lebanese border. For many Syrians, Assad is also winning the political argument. The regime is offering stability and a secular order against a chaotic rebellion increasingly dominated by hardline Islamist militias, some of which have links to Al Qaeda.

However, the rebellion has laid strong roots among a good section of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. The Syrian state has retreated from large parts of the country, where the various rebel groups act as the only provider of employment, policing, and justice. There is a deep pool of potential recruits among young Sunni men from poor rural areas, and Assad probably lacks the numbers to ever win back the entire state territory. A return to the status quo is simply unthinkable for opposition supporters.

A protracted conflict looks at the moment the most likely scenario, leading to a slow disintegration of the state and division of the country between various military commanders from both camps.

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