Things are looking up for Syrian President Bashar Assad. He claims, with some truth, that the tide of civil war has finally turned in his favour and that his forces will soon “win” Syria’s three-year-old fratricidal slaughter. Speaking to students at Damascus University on April 13th, Assad stated that Syria’s “war on terror” had climaxed. From now on, he implied, further fighting would be a simple matter of cleaning up.
Things are going so well, in fact, that on Monday Assad felt comfortable enough for his regime’s parliamentary leader to announce that a presidential “election” would be held on June 3. The election was denounced by both the UN and Syrian opposition forces as a fraud. ‘So be it,’ shrugged the regime.
Less than a year ago, Assad’s regime was tottering. Facing renewed gains by rebel forces, Assad unleashed a chemical weapons attack against forward rebel positions on the outskirts of Damascus last August that killed up to 1,500 people and, it appeared, crossed the line beyond which the United States could no longer refrain from direct military intervention.
Then, after promising military action, President Obama blinked and backed down; granting negotiating authority to Assad’s prime backer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to arrange for the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal as a substitute for punitive action against the regime. Obama’s climb down legitimized Assad’s regime, emboldened Putin and broke rebel morale.
What Assad will “win”, assuming his forces are able to crush the various rebel armies and restore authority over the areas now controlled by their opponents, is another question entirely. Syria’s civil war has been one of the most devastating of modern times. With more than 150,000 dead, up to two million injured, nine million refugees, three million of whom are in camps outside Syria, and untold physical damage to Syria’s infrastructure, the war’s costs are impossible to calculate.
By way of comparison, the death toll in Syria’s civil war three-year-old civil war is nearly three the total amount of people killed on all sides in every Arab-Israeli war since 1947 combined.
Assad’s rosy assessment is shared by his chief mercenary Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, founder and leader the Lebanese terror group Hizbullah, who has contributed thousands of his “soldiers” to fight for Assad inside Syria. “The danger of the Syrian regime falling is over,” Nasrallah told supporters in Beirut last week.
In reality, while things are definitely improving for the regime, the war is far from over. The latest fighting seems to have hardened most of the battle lines along the war’s many and hard to follow fronts. While Assad’s forces are more secure in their redoubts, he seems to lack the power at the moment to do much to push on much further into strongly held rebel positions.
Assad has reinforced his control of Damascus and the critical supply lines between it and other government controlled areas. His big recent win came when regime forces retook the Christian town of Maaloula on 14 April. Maaloula was captured by rebels in early December.
The collapse of their position reduced their control of Lebanon-Syria to a mere sliver. Rebel forces, who have been holding out in Syria’s 3rd largest city Homs, are thought to be facing imminent collapse. If and when government troops retake Homs, the devastating two year siege, which has been the site of some of the war’s most awful suffering may finally come to an end.
Internecine battles that have racked rebel groups fighting to remove the Assad regime seems to have reached a tipping point with recent defeats of hard line extremist forces from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group. With ISIS being sidelined, at least temporarily, rebel groups have been able to mount gains in the far northwest of the country along the Turkish Syrian border. They have also notched some key successes in the battle for Syria’s largest city Aleppo.
With President Assad now knowing he can adopt any tactic or use any weapon to crush his opponents with complete impunity, government forces have taken up using rockets, artillery and other heavy weapons like huge barrel bombs packed with nails and other sharp shrapnel indiscriminately dropped from helicopters into densely populated civilians areas. Virtually no one has said a word in protest.
The UN’s program to remove Assad’s chemical weapons notwithstanding, Assad feels comfortable enough to have started using them again. This time, however, as US State Department spokesman Marie Harf carefully explained to reporters, the use of chemical weapons is less objectionable because the active agent – chlorine gas, which blinds and chokes its victims – is not specifically prohibited by the UN Chemical weapons convention.