Syrian regime's position strengthens as world pushes for diplomatic solution

Bashar al-Assad's regime has certainly suffered many setbacks during the brutal civil war that shows no signs of ending, but it's clear right now that Assad and his followers have been gaining momentum, writes Derek Stoffel.
Fighters adjust a rocket to be launched towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Deir al-Zor. Recent victories by al-Assad's forces have put them in a better position to block the transfer of arms from Jordan to opposition fighters. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

If there’s one thing you can say about Bashar al-Assad, it’s that he has staying power.

For more than two years, the Syrian president has defied predictions that his downfall is imminent. His regime has certainly suffered many setbacks during the brutal civil war that shows no signs of ending, but it's clear right now that Assad and his followers have been gaining momentum.

The most recent example came just a few days ago, when Syrian forces took control of a town near the highway that links Damascus to neighboring Jordan. After battles with the opposition, government troops reopened the roadway near Khirbet Ghazaleh.

Re-establishing control means Syrian soldiers are in a better position now to block the transfer of arms from Jordan, bound for opposition fighters.

All across Syria, Assad’s forces have launched intense offensives in recent weeks, successfully pushing the rebels back from hard-won positions. There has been fierce fighting in the northern city of Raqqa, the first provincial capital to fall to opposition hands.

Assad himself has demonstrated more confidence of late, making several public appearances in an effort to show he is not holed-up in his well-guarded presidential palaces in Damascus.

"We are not afraid," he told his supporters outside a power plant in the capital at the beginning of May. "They want us to live underground, but we will remain above it."

State of the opposition

Ahmad Majdalani keeps a close eye on the latest developments in Syria from his Ramallah office, in the West Bank. Majdalani is the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s liaison with both the Syrian government and the opposition.

"The regime right now is strong. There is no risk of it collapsing," Majdalani told me. "Right now, no one is clearly winning. But the regime is doing better – especially when you look at the state of the opposition right now. They are several groups fighting, and they are divided."

Syria’s opposition may fight under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, but the groups who have taken up arms against Assad and his regime often fight independently, without coordinated battle plans.

More recently, a number of extremist factions have joined Syria’s civil war, including the powerful Jabhat al-Nusra, which is aligned with al Qaeda.

"The Islamic fighters in Syria have risen in power and numbers," said Majdalani. "This has raised a lot of fear among ordinary Syrians, who now reluctantly back the regime — which has taken advantage of this."

International factors

Canada, the United States and many European countries continue to call on Assad to step down, but he’s not going anywhere, it seems. He can count on the support of several international friends, including Iran and Russia, as well as the Shia militant group Hezbollah from Lebanon.

Shelling by Syrian forces has destroyed buildings in Homs province, as seen in this May 14 photo. (Lens Young Homsi/AP)

For its part, Iran said Wednesday it has invited a number of countries to attend a "friends of Syria" meeting on May 29.

The strength of the Syrian armed forces is perhaps the key reason why the regime has not fallen. The number of soldiers defecting from the military has dropped recently, while the government has drafted new troops and recalled reserve forces to make up for losses.

"The armed forces in Syria remain united," said Hisham Jaber, a former general in the Lebanese army who now works as a military analyst in Beirut.

"[The regime] has created a new brigade of about 3,000 soldiers. They are very well-trained, motivated and indoctrinated – like special forces – fighting in Damascus [against] the rebels."

Neither side in Syria has been able to strike a decisive blow to end the fighting. But most analysts agree that right now Assad and his followers are in a position of power.

"If things continue as they are, the government will certainly be the party that has the major advantage," Charles Lister of the IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London told the Washington Post.

That puts the Syrian president in a strong position, as Russia and the United States work to bring a diplomatic solution to end the Syrian crisis.