When protesters took to the streets of Syrian cities in March 2011, President Bashar al-Assad looked set to become the latest victim of a revolution like ones that had already toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and were soon to do the same in Yemen and Libya.
But almost three years later, Mr. Assad still inhabits the presidential palace overlooking a battle-scarred Damascus. The tenacity of his regime, the evident disarray within the political opposition, and armed rebel groups' drift toward Islamic extremism have spurred some in the West to voice what was unthinkable just a year ago: that Assad could actually win, and that his survival may even be preferable to a rebel victory, which could bring about a Syria dominated by Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists.
Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Damascus with extensive experience in the Middle East, recently caused a stir by predicting in a New York Times op-ed that Assad would eventually regain the country "inch by bloody inch."
"And do we really want the alternative – a major country in the heart of the Arab world in the hands of Al Qaeda?" he wrote.
Still, although Assad has survived longer than many would have predicted in 2011, his chances of winning the war are slim. Neither side is strong enough to decisively win, and a "victory" would still give him only a shadow of what he had in February 2011, analysts say.
"Assad cannot win the conflict, although he can survive indefinitely," says Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. "Regime forces are too stretched to advance on all fronts, and can only make gains in one or two areas at a time, at the risk of losing ground elsewhere.... There will be no return to the pre-2011 situation."
Assad's longevity thus far has largely depended on three factors:
- Disorganization among the opposition – with the external, internationally recognized representatives isolated from those on the ground in Syria – and the steady radicalization of armed rebel groups, which has dampened foreign support for the opposition.
- The diplomatic, military, and logistical support of Russia and Iran.
- The cohesive nature of the Assad regime, which has yet to show any serious sign of buckling.
When the anti-regime protests broke out, Assad responded with brute force, and the casualty toll soared. Initially, the regime's heavy-handed reaction to the demonstrations and failure to offer significant reforms seemed like a strategic error; it sparked a bloody sectarian civil war that is tearing the country apart.
That view is under revision today, however, as the debate on how to remove Assad from power is overtaken by concern in the West that Syria is becoming a haven for Al Qaeda. Recent comments by Mr. Crocker and other former US officials make clear that Assad is no longer necessarily seen as the worst option for Syria's future.
Michael Hayden, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told a conference in early December that an Assad win was "the best out of three very, very ugly possible outcomes."
The other two options he cited were a continuing sectarian war between Sunni and Shiite extremists – with its path of destruction through the country and destabilization throughout the region – and a breakup of the country, which could lead to the dissolution of other Middle East states created by Britain and France after World War I.
Some analysts are critical of the views of Crocker, Mr. Hayden, and others, arguing that it was Assad's brutal crackdown on initially peaceful pro-democracy activists that led to the radicalization of the opposition in the first place.
"It is the very presence of the Assad regime and the very tactics it has employed that account for the presence of Islamist extremists in Syria. The regime has set the country alight and now presents itself as the fire brigade," says Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Mr. Hof, who previously served as the Obama administration's liaison with the Syrian opposition, added that the Assad regime's efforts to radicalize the opposition were inadvertently aided by the West, "which failed miserably to support the regime's real opponents."
The Free Syrian Army, originally the main armed opposition group, has been overshadowed by the rise of more militant Islamist groups. The drift by rebel factions toward Islamic extremism was partly due to the regime's brutal tactics, but it was also motivated by a desire to boost their appeal to wealthy Arab patrons in the Gulf.
The competition among rebel groups is a Darwinian contest for funding and weapons. Two of the strongest individual factions today are the Al Qaeda-affiliated groups Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
More recently, Saudi Arabia backed the creation of a new rebel coalition, the Islamic Front, grouping together 45,000 to 60,000 fighters from some of the strongest factions. The Islamic Front has rejected a political solution to the conflict, spurned an offer of dialogue with the United States, and aspires to establish an Islamic state once Assad is overthrown.
But even if the West were to tacitly encourage the defeat of Islamic extremist groups in Syria, it is doubtful that the overstretched Syrian military has the capacity to do so.
"I think the regime, in essence, still remains very weak," says Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the influential "Syria Comment" blog. "Even though the opposition has been so weak and divided and fighting among each other, [Assad] has not been able to make any dramatic gains, and I think we are seeing the apex of the regime effort right now."
Key to Assad's survival thus far is the military assistance provided by Iran and Russia. Assad's Syria is a vital ally of Iran, forming the cornerstone of an alliance to challenge Israel and Western policies in the Middle East that also includes Lebanon's powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
In an effort to shore up the Assad regime, Hezbollah has dispatched its crack fighters into Syria to battle rebel forces. They have fought in the Damascus suburbs, they retook the border town of Qusayr near Homs in June, and they are currently spearheading an offensive to regain the strategic Qalamoun area north of the capital. Alongside Hezbollah are several Iraqi Shiite militia expeditionary forces. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) reportedly has provided arms, training of paramilitary forces, and advice to the Syrian Army.
"Assad has only been able to come back with extensive help from Hezbollah, the IRGC, and Shiite militias that can't stay deployed in Syria forever," says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Russia also has been a vital diplomatic and logistical supporter of the Assad regime, vetoing draft United Nations Security Council resolutions advocating for stronger action against Damascus and providing the Syrian military with military aid and funds.
Analysts say that while neither Russia nor Iran are necessarily wedded to the long-term survival of Assad himself, there is little chance of either country reversing its policies toward Syria in the near future.
A third factor behind the Assad regime's survival is the nature of the regime itself. Although some senior government officials have defected, the core of the regime appears to be resilient and united, defying hopes in the West that Assad could be unseated by an internal coup.
"The idea that you could have a coup that would get rid of the evil part of the regime is a false way of thinking about this regime. It's not Assad that's evil; it's the system that created an evil Assad," says Mr. Landis. "It's an extremely narrow regime that is built on loyalty to the family and corruption. It can't function in a modern world of nation-states."
Still, if the Assad regime lacks the military resources to regain the rest of the country and decisively crush the armed opposition, what is the best it can hope for?
Probably not much more than what it currently holds, analysts say. That means Damascus, the central cities of Homs and Hama, and the Mediterranean coastal region, which is home to the majority of Syria's Alawite community, the Shiite splinter sect that forms the backbone of the regime. (See map at left: "A post-Assad statelet?")
Aleppo, Syria's second city, and much of the north and east of the country will remain in the hands of the rebel forces.
"Victory for the ruling family at this point is continuing to be propped up in Damascus, nominally ruling western Syria, by Iran and Iranian-backed militias with Russian arms resupplies," Hof says.
In the absence of any cease-fire agreement between the two sides, it is an open question how long the regime would be able to keep the territory under its control. The Ghouta region, east of Damascus, remains heavily contested. If the Islamic Front and other leading rebel groups manage to pull together, with possible financial and logistical backing from Saudi Arabia, they could in the future pose a threat to the regime's hold on western Syria.
A Syria peace conference is scheduled to begin Jan. 22 in Montreux, Switzerland. Few expect an imminent breakthrough, however, to end a conflict that has left more than 110,000 people dead. The best that could perhaps be hoped for is a cease-fire that endorses the current de facto partition of the country, pending a broader settlement.
"I think many people in this regime would accept a trade like this because I think many Alawites know they can't reconquer the other half of the country, which is totally Sunni," says Landis.
A future of isolation
Still, the main difficulty in brokering such a cease-fire is the fact that the opposition lacks any cohesive voice, strategy, or even ideal end result, which would threaten to undermine any deal reached in Montreux.
"A stable political solution also requires an effective and coherent opposition that can sign and uphold a negotiated agreement, but such an opposition does not exist," says Mr. Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
It may be another set of imminent negotiations that provides an impetus to resolve the Syria war – the talks between Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, France, China, Russia, the US, and Germany) over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. "The only thing that could alter [everyone's] calculations is a P5+1 deal with Iran ... this could allow agreement among the main external actors on Syria," Sayigh says.
Meanwhile, the de facto partition of Syria appears to be solidifying. That may leave Assad nominally in control of Damascus and the areas outlined above, but still heavily dependent on his Russian and Iranian allies for survival. On his hands will be an economy and infrastructure in tatters, an Alawite community fearful for its future, and almost total diplomatic and financial isolation because of sanctions against the regime.
"The US and Europe will never relegitimize Assad," says Landis. "So even if there is some formal cease-fire, the sanctions will remain imposed on the regime and it will become a North Korea, completely ostracized and a pariah state."