In Syria, The Losing Hand for al-Assad and Iran

LondonThe recent fall of the provincial capital Idlib and environs to rebels, along with setbacks to government forces elsewhere in Syria, raise the question of whether Bashar al-Assad and, by extension, his patron Iran are losing the civil war.

Idlib, Syria, March, 2015: Bullet holes in poster of Bashar al-Assad.

Even victory for al-Assad would be hard to define as such: if somehow he turned back the rebel challenge he would preside over a country in physical and moral ruin. Does he recognize this? Perhaps his comments the other day blaming Idlib’s fall on Turkey and Persian Gulf Arab states suggests he does.

Does Iran? And could it consider removing al-Assad as a means of ending the fighting or at least to build a wider coalition to confront the rebels, whose radical jihad groups might frighten even anti-government Sunnis into seeking a national unity government.

Iran has supplied troops through its client Lebanese militia Hezbollah to the conflict and its agents are overseeing various militias and local self-defense groups to keep hold of parts of the country. The war is in its fifth year with no end in sight.

It is worth remembering that the rebels by and large reflect dissatisfaction of Sunni Muslims, about 75 per cent of Syria’s population, with al-Assad’s rule, at whose heart lies the Alawite minority, al-Assad’s sect and an offshoot of Shiite Islam. About 12 per cent of Syrians are Alawites. Christians, at 10 per cent, have been largely driven into al-Assad’s arms by fears of the extremist Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front.

A few other mostly Muslim minority sects make up the rest. Though economic class and ethnic differences make it hard to understand who is with whom at this point, demographics alone don’t favor al-Assad. The drain on military  manpower is a problem, hence the government’s use of irregulars rather than just the standing army.

In Iraq last year, Iran and the US agreed on the ouster of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in hopes of pacifying the rebellious Sunni minority. The war there still rages, but the move was at least a recognition that Iraq’s problems had political, not just military, roots.

Removing al-Assad would be a bitter pill for Iran to swallow. He has been a key player in the Tehran-led anti-US, anti-Israel front that includes Hezbollah. As the war drags on and the mounting casualties mount and make reconciliation ever more difficult, Iran risks losing it all. Tehran is already engaged in a proxy conflict with Saudi Arabia over Yemen and has sent Revolutionary Guard officers to Iraq to help out the Baghdad government.

Maybe Iraq can afford all that. Or maybe the Shiite Crescent of Iranian influence is cracking.

The Washington Post says al-Assad is losing and his regime is in disarray.

Foreign Policy said government forces are overstretched.

Does al-Assad face a shortage of fighters?

An analysis of al-Assad’s dependence on Iran and militias. 

Bashar al-Assad’s take.

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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