Is Syria's Bashar al-Assad on the ropes?

It depends on who you ask.

Fadi Zaidan/Reuters
A destroyed tank of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces is seen after clashes with the Free Syrian Army in the Rasten area, near Homs on July 29.

Is Syria's Bashar al-Assad on the ropes?

US officials continue to present the demise of his regime as an inevitability. But of course they would. That's the outcome they want, and a perception of inevitability can generate its own momentum. The more supporters of the regime believe the government is doomed, the more likely they are to jump ship.

The bloody events of recent weeks certainly don't look positive for him, particularly the fact that parts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial hub, remain outside of his control. That sends a powerful message of weakness about his regime, particularly given that the rebel forces Syria's Army is up against are seriously outgunned, without the artillery, tanks, or helicopters Mr. Assad has at his disposal.

But the balance of military power remains heavily slanted in favor of Assad, so it's hard to count him out. A truly accurate prediction would require knowing far more than anyone seems to about the rebels' order of battle and the thoughts of millions of average Syrians who have stayed largely on the fence until now. If a collapse comes, it will probably come fast, involving the defections of members of his inner circle. Lots of important regime insiders could be thinking of such a exit strategy at the moment – or very few of them.

In a piece 10 days ago, C.J. Chivers, a former Marine who now works for The New York Times, argued that the writing is on the wall for Syria's Baath regime. His view is that the Syrian rebels have adopted the tactics that served Iraqi insurgents so well in the war against the US presence there, and that the government is going to slowly find its ability to move forces strangled.

The opposition’s rapid mastery of improvised explosives since the spring changed the character and momentum of this conflict, and put Syria’s army, notwithstanding what seems its enduring material strength, in a highly unenviable position... But the Syrian army’s continued capacity for lethality will not change the uprising’s military arc. And more killing might only exacerbate the Syrian army’s difficulties. Why? Because looked at coldly the Syrian army, which began the war as the biggest man in the bar, has been on a bloody and agonizing one-direction ride. You can make a social argument here, which should serve as a warning for other crackdown artists or champions of conventional military units’ roles in the irregular wars or our age: This is the modern-day outcome of using blunt force against a potentially large, determined and angry enemy on its own turf with a bulky and a doctrinally incoherent force that must make things up as it goes. That argument will probably stand. But then come the particulars that explain how an army, which set out pitted against an essentially unarmed foe, will lose. This is where the I.E.D. fits in. Once the armed opposition mastered the I.E.D. and spiked with bombs much of the very ground that any military seeking to control Syria must cover, and Syria’s army lacked a deep bench of well-trained explosive ordnance disposal teams and the suites of electronic and defensive equipment for its vehicles to survive, then the end was written.

Patrick Lang, the former head of the Middle East desk at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, has a different view today. Col. Lang is a retired special forces colonel who fought in Vietnam, founded the Arab language program at West Point, and served as a military attache in US embassies in the Arab world. He predicts the rebels will be driven from Aleppo.

IMO, the rebels have miscalculated. Their force has not "evolved" enough to confront significant conventional forces in an urban environment or anywhere else that the conventional forces can "pin" them in place against terrain or some other obstacle. They will pay heavily for this error.  They will lose a lot of men, and be driven from the city... This would not mean the end of the war. Following such a defeat the rebels are likely to spend an extended period re-building their force in Turkey and launching a long term campaign of revolutionary warfare based on guerrillas.  They may eventually succeed in bringing down the present government if they take a long view of the need to wear the regime down one "mouse" bite at a time.

What's really happening and on what timetable? No one can say for certain. Regime propaganda says the government has won back Aleppo. Rebel propaganda says the opposite. All that's clear is that Syria's war is moving into a nastier stage, if such a thing is possible. The United Nations says that 200,000 people have fled Aleppo in recent days, ahead of what many fear could be a repeat of the 1982 sacking of the city of Hama by Assad's father, Hafez.

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