Has the faction led by President Bashar Al-Assad already won the three-year long civil war in Syria?
The tendency in the Western commentariat is to answer the question with a qualified yes. A similar tune is whistled by some in Tehran and Moscow, Assad’s principal backers in this tragic war.
Gen. Qassem Suleimani, regarded by some as the true ruler of Syria, claims that his Quds Force has already tipped the balance in favor of Assad. Russia Today, President Vladimir Putin’s global media network, has also decided that Assad has won and that Syria is heading for normalization.
Does that analysis reflect the real situation in Syria? We are not so sure.
In fact, we believe that the struggle for Syria is just completing its second act. No one knows for sure what might happen in the third act.
Even in Tehran, not everybody is as sanguine as General Suleimani. In a meeting with visiting Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the Islamic Republic’s former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, whistled a different tune.
“Intervention in Syria is costly, leads to divisions in the Muslim world and claims innocent lives, but will have no benefits for anyone,” he told the Pakistani leader.
The event that triggered the “Assad-has-won” theory was the recent evacuation of anti-Assad forces from Homs, which was once dubbed the “capital of the revolution.” However, taking into account the bigger picture, though the evacuation is tactically important for Assad’s faction, it may be of little or no strategic significance. A civil war is not about positional warfare.
In a civil war, the faction challenging the established order would put itself at a disadvantage by committing its forces and necessarily meager resources to holding territory. The challenger depends on mobility and surprise, striking where it can and withdrawing where it feels vulnerable. During the Chinese civil war, Mao Zedong established his reputation as a guerrilla leader more through judicious retreats than the holding of territory. In fact, the nationalist camp, led by Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, had nominal control of much of the Chinese landmass until the final phase of the war.
In a civil war, territory is controlled in a variety of ways. Sometimes, one faction exercises control during the day while another is in control at night. This was what happened in large parts of Algeria during its war of independence against France. South Vietnam was in a similar situation with regards to the “balance of power” to the end of the US military intervention.
In other cases, one faction controls the principal roads while a rival faction holds the hinterland. This is what happened in the 11-year-long war in Malaya that involved the British on the Malay side, against Communist insurgents on the other. A similar situation was seen in Afghanistan in the final years of the Communist regime in Kabul, with the Soviet army controlling the main roads while the Mujahideen roamed the countryside.
In some cases, such as in the Spanish Civil War, rival factions exercise different degrees of effective presence in different parts of the same country: The nationalist side quickly won control in Galicia but did not impose itself in Catalonia until the final phases of the struggle.
The Assad faction’s current strategy is partly copied from a security plan drafted and implemented in parts by the French in Syria during the revolt led by the Druze leader Sultan Al-Atrash in the 1920s. The plan divided Syria into three zones. The first was called “useful Syria”—which included Damascus and a few other cities where the colonial power had to fly its flag, as well as communication lines needed for logistical purposes such as bringing in fresh forces from the outside. The second zone was effectively written off as areas controlled by the rebels. The third zone was a grey area in which the colonial army fought the rebels for control. There, the two sides would frequently change position, one becoming the fixed target while the other acted as the mobile attackers and vice versa.
France’s “useful Syria” strategy failed, and I believe that Assad’s modified version of it is also doomed. The reason is that, during the mandate, a majority of Syrians did not want foreign rule, and today a similar majority rejects domination by the Assad clan.
More than any other form of warfare, a civil war is about hearts and minds, rather than territory. By that yardstick, Assad’s position today must be weaker than at the start of the conflict. At that time, many Syrians were still prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt or, at least, did not blame him for the atrocities committed under his father. Now, however, he has presided over atrocities greater than anything Hafez Al-Assad could have imagined.
Three years ago, Bashar didn’t have much of a record. Today, he has one—a bloody one.
No civil war can end unless and until the challenger admits defeat. That could happen without either side winning a convincing victory in military terms. It is enough for one side to throw in the towel as a result of demoralization, rather than actual setbacks on the battlefield. I doubt that the bulk of the Syrians who rose against Assad are demoralized enough to call it a day. They could easily regroup and continue low-intensity warfare against a regime that is certainly more unpopular today than it was three years ago.
A civil war is not subject to the traditional term limits of conventional wars imposed by authorities of nations involved. A civil war could go on for decades. The civil war between the optimates and the populares in ancient Rome lasted 40 years. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is now in its third decade.
Only the removal of the original cause of the Syrian war could bring it to an end. That original cause is despotism. The symbol of despotism is Bashar Al-Assad.