Assad’s brutality won’t be enough to save his regime

Michael Stephens
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SYRIA’S ongoing civil war is now entering a decisive phase. Bloody battles, street by street, alley by alley, are raging for the two key cities of Damascus and Aleppo. The regime of the Syrian President Bashar al Assad appears to be expending every last ounce of effort to maintain its hold over urban centres. Fast jets, attack helicopters, and elite units have been mobilised in a determined show of force, which has succeeded in pushing back rebel forces from many of the neighbourhoods they previously controlled.

Such a response was to be expected after the bomb attack on 18 July, which killed four of the regime’s top officials. The dead included defence minister Dawud Rajiha, and the regime’s top strongman Assaf Shawkat. At the same time, rebel forces moved into inner neighbourhoods of Damascus and seized commercial districts in Aleppo. Although not the death knell for the regime, the bombing proved a decisive blow to its standing.

Assad had to respond quickly and brutally to prevent his regime’s collapse. Much of his legitimacy to rule depends on his ability to maintain security for minorities and protect the interests of Syria’s business classes. The latter have long struck an uneasy but workable alliance with the regime in return for prosperity. A failure to ensure security would have destroyed the faith of even the most hardened loyalists, leaving the Assad regime with no popular support to continue with its bloody onslaught.

Through the use of unparalleled levels of violence, even by Syrian standards, Assad has halted the conflict’s slide towards the rebels, but at a great cost. Many of Syria’s urban centres lie in ruins and, even if the rebels can’t hold the major cities, he will be unable to dislodge them from surrounding rural regions, where they have been in de facto control for months.

In the absence of any meaningful international consensus, regime and military defections are still the key to finishing this sorry saga. Led by Nawaf Fares, ambassador to Iraq, diplomatic defections have begun to match the increasing number of defections in the military arena. Despite its fightback, the Assad regime is being ground down from within. At the current rate of attrition, it surely can’t run a workable polity for much longer.

How long this slow death spiral will take, nobody really knows. Information from within Syria is hard to verify and often so localised that building up a comprehensive picture of the conflict is nearly impossible. However, in the coming weeks, a combined effort by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who provide financing, weapons, logistics and training to the disparate bands of rebels will increase, as the Sunni coalition tightens the screws on the regime.

The end is in sight. The problem is that nobody really knows what the end will look like, or how Syria will move on from the trauma that it has experienced. One thing is for certain, however – more blood will be spilled before we get there.

Michael Stephens is a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar.