The end might not be in sight for the conflict in Syria, but there are signs the three-way battle between the regime of Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, and rebels seeking a representative government has turned a corner, according to experts in the field.
“After roughly two years of being on the defensive, Syria’s rebels are making dramatic gains in the north of the country,” writes Charles Lister, a visiting foreign policy fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar. “In the span of six weeks, coalitions of insurgent fighters captured the city of Idlib and won a series of key strategic victories elsewhere in the governorate. In the face of the opposition, the Syrian Army and its supporting militias appear at their weakest point since early 2013.”
The response of the Assad regime has been fierce. Its soldiers have mounted new attacks, by land and air in an effort to beat back the strengthened rebels – including assaults with the infamous “barrel bombs” that have become a trademark of the Syrian Army. In what might be seen as an act of desperation, the regime also appears to have resorted again to the use of chemical weapons, specifically lethal chlorine gas.
However, says Lister, four years into the conflict, there are signs that the Assad regime is beginning to waver. “The regime is no longer militarily capable of launching definitively successful operations outside of its most valuable territories, while its capacity for defense against concerted attack now appears questionable at best,” he writes.
Perhaps even more important, he added, is that the regime is losing political support.
“It also looks diplomatically weaker, as Russia appears no longer wedded to the Assad regime’s long-term survival and is now more open to the idea of a managed transition that would ensure the best chances of post-regime stability,” says Lister. “Meanwhile, Iran’s apparent rapprochement with the United States and its expected involvement in talks in Geneva convened by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura may open the door for, at the very least, discussions of a negotiated solution in Syria.”
Meanwhile, opposition to the Syrian regime in the rest of the international community has not softened.
On Wednesday, President Obama announced that the sanctions imposed on Syria under his predecessor, George W. Bush, would be extended for another year after they expire on May 11. In a notice posted to the Federal Register, the White House said:
“The regime's brutality and repression of the Syrian people, who have been calling for freedom and a representative government, not only endangers the Syrian people themselves, but also is generating instability throughout the region. The Syrian regime's actions and policies, including with respect to chemical and biological weapons, supporting terrorist organizations, and obstructing the Lebanese government's ability to function effectively, continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
Much of the rebel gains in the past weeks appear to have been driven in part by the united support of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of which view Syria as an enemy, and which have reportedly become frustrated with the pace of operations against Assad.
The situation in Syria is complicated. The terror group ISIS holds territory there, and has been fighting both the Assad regime and some of the rebel groups.
For its part, the United States has moved only hesitatingly in Syria, largely because of the Obama administration’s concern that other radical Islamist groups have too much influence over rebel fighters, and could wind up co-opting what was originally a pro-Democracy movement and putting a radical Islamic party at the head of a new government.
U.S. lawmakers recently sent a letter to President Obama asking that he instruct the U.S. armed forces to set up one or more “safe zones” in or around Syria, where refugees from the fighting could take shelter.
“We would need to fight to create such a space, and then fight to keep such a space,” said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in Congressional hearings on Wednesday, adding that the task would be “challenging.”
Nonetheless, last week a senior U.S. official told The New York Times that things are looking grim for Assad, noting that all the “trend lines” are negative.
In an uncommon public appearance Wednesday though, Assad assured his supporters saying that occasional setbacks were to be expected in war. “Psychological defeat is the final defeat and we are not worried,” he said.
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