President Bashar al-Assad is winning in Syria. Russia has shifted the balance of power there dramatically. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the UN might insist that Assad negotiate with his opponents and ultimately cede power to them, but the Syrian president has no intention of accepting such demands. His advisers state that he will go to talks in Geneva this month “to listen, but not to negotiate.” In other words, he is still out for victory on the battlefield. As the United States enters the now delayed UN negotiating process, it will have to stay flexible in its expectations and objectives in light of the shifting military balance on the ground.
The main reason for Assad’s renewed confidence is a clear reversal of military fortune. Three months ago, Assad’s army was beleaguered. A large confederation of jihadist and Islamist militias calling themselves the Victory Army had achieved something resembling unity. Built around Syria’s two strongest militias—al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syria franchise; and Ahrar al-Sham, the most powerful Salafi militia in the country—the Victory Army conquered two strategic northern cities, Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour, in quick succession this spring. These victories attracted many other militias into their orbit and promised success. The expulsion of regime forces from Jisr al-Shughour not only meant the independence of Idlib more generally but put Latakia, a regime stronghold, in serious jeopardy. The new resistance army seemed to overcome the opposition’s chronic fragmentation; it was also well armed and supported by the region’s Sunni states.
But Assad’s greatest advantage—a fragmented opposition divided into more than 1,000 constantly feuding militias—seems to be back. Recently, over 20 rebel militia leaders have been assassinated, most by a breakaway faction of the Victory Army. The militias that the United States trained and armed at great expense have been crushed, not by Assad but by other rebels.
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