Assad's regime has now passed point of no return
Having attempted to quash a popular uprising and fight off countrywide rebel attacks for 20 months, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime has passed a point of no return.
In the north, a huge military base west of Aleppo was taken by rebel forces on November 18th after weeks of intense fighting. Close to the Iraqi border in the east, the Hamdan airport, used by the regime to drop bombs on rebels and civilians, was overrun by jihadists the previous day.
A dozen kilometres east of the capital, Damascus, rebels managed to destroy aircraft and tanks at a government military base before making off with much needed ammunition and surface-to-air missiles following a carefully co-ordinated attack late last month.
Every day, video footage purporting to show government warplanes and helicopters being shot down is uploaded to YouTube. The week before last the regime was forced to close Damascus International Airport and to cut off internet access to the country for 53 hours as it battled rebel groups encircling the capital. The signs are ominous; the end for Dr Assad and his regime seems nigh.
For more than four decades the Assad family has ruled Syria with an iron-fist-in-glove approach. It has claimed to offer stability in a region wracked by war. Indeed, many Syrians enjoyed a marked improvement in their quality of life before the revolt took hold in March 2011.
In Syria’s major cities, western-styled restaurants, nightclubs and cafes flourished. More than a dozen new private banks provided cheap credit to thousands of young Syrians who wanted to buy apartments and get married.
But a devastating drought from 2008 to 2011 forced about a million farmers and labourers off the land in eastern Syria and into lives of poverty. A huge migration of Syrians from rural Syria to the working class suburbs outside Damascus and Aleppo, and to Deraa, led to growing anger with the regime among Syria’s new poor.
What has followed since March last year has been a bloodbath largely fought out between thousands of downtrodden Sunnis and an Alawite regime struggling to hang on.
Several times over the past 12 months the Assad regime’s immediate passing has been heralded. In July, when several of President Assad’s closest confidants were killed in a bombing in central Damascus, it was thought collapse could happen at any moment. In the same month rebels seeking Assad’s removal launched attacks on Damascus and Aleppo, but were beaten back. Defections of senior government figures were also thought to signal the end of the regime.
But all proved to be false dawns and in reality to make little difference to events in the battlefield, where fierce combat is deciding the direction of the conflict.
Bit by bit rebels are turning the tide. They are helped by extremist Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, which have come into their own in recent weeks and months by providing important military experience and a willingness to die in battle that most Free Syrian Army rebels don’t share.
For the first time, fighters have their hands on huge caches of government weapons, including advanced surface-to-air shoulder-fired missiles. With important military bases now overrun, the government will find it more difficult to carry out air raids on rebel positions.
The first step in ousting the current regime lies in taking the northern city of Aleppo, which seems increasingly likely to happen in the coming weeks or months given the city’s almost complete encirclement by rebel forces. From there, as in Libya last year, rebels can focus on taking the cities of Hama and Homs on the way to Damascus, the main prize.
Recent analyses show that while central Damascus remains under the control of the government, only one-third of the city and its hinterland is controlled by the regime (with another third contested and a third free from government control).
Suicide bombers have managed to breach government lines and target state security buildings in the city centre on several occasions. Speaking to Syrians inside Damascus, one gets the feeling that the end is near and people are hoping to be spared the level of violence that has destroyed other Syrian cities fought over by the regime and rebels.
All this is not to say the regime will collapse immediately. The shabiha militias, the Fourth Division and the Republican Guard will fight as long as Assad is alive, and perhaps longer. Millions of state employees are still being paid by the government and, as a result, have no reason to oppose the regime. Because of a huge security presence, taking Damascus will probably be the rebels’ most difficult assignment of all.
The Syrian government, one of the last minority regimes in the Middle East, may battle on for months. But the Assads, like other authoritarian rulers in the region, will soon be wiped from the Middle East map and consigned to history.
Bashar and his father, Hafez al-Assad, will be remembered for shedding the blood of civilians and for imprisoning thousands, not for uniting a country that lurched from coup to coup for two decades in the 1950s and 60s.
How will the fall of the house of Assad come about? Will Bashar fight on to the death, seek refuge overseas or retreat to Syria’s Alawite-inhabited mountains – the Assads’ historical homeland – before central Damascus comes under sustained attack from rebels? The when and how are uncertain but one thing is sure: the Assad regime’s end is clearer now than ever before.
Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist and the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.