Assad ‘Is Ahead on Points’

by Patrick Brennan

The Assad regime and its rebel opponents are like two boxers locked in a long, bloody match, Yezid Sayigh writes for the Carnegie Institute for Peace, but “despite severe disadvantages and short-comings, some of them self-inflicted,” “the regime is ahead on points.” That’s the takeaway from his latest report for the center on the conflict.

It’s marginally different from what State Department spokesman Jen Psaki told reporters today, when asked about the situation: “Our analysis remains what it has been, that this is a war of attrition, and neither side has been able to deliver or hold onto significant gains. I’m not going to give ground-game updates.” She reassured the press that the U.S. has a new envoy to Syria (to meet with the official rebel coalition, one assumes, that doesn’t have real control over any useful forces).

It’s true that the regime hasn’t won significant gains (and it’s weakened a little in the northeast of the country, it seems), but it retook the Christian town of Maaloula recently, adding that to other parts of the country it’s clawed back since the fall of last year. It’s also, according to the Carnegie report, beginning to cut deals with some rebel groups to pacify parts of the country and free up troops to fight elsewhere. Given all that, it is odd that there have been reports recently of a new chemical-weapons attack — a state helicopter apparently dropped a makeshift bomb that may have contained chlorine gas, but the regime is blaming Jabha al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, which is rumored to have some chemical capabilities themselves.

The depressing conclusion Sayigh reached a few days ago:

The cumulative effect of trends since fall 2013 favors the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The regime remains far from achieving an all-out military victory, and it may never do so. The gains it is making are slow, costly, and often tentative, vulnerable to reversal. But if present trends continue—and there really is little to suggest they will not—then the regime will be in a dominant position and in effective control of a critical mass of the country by the end of 2015, if not sooner. 

This would seem to contradict the State Department’s assessment, though Sayigh may be slightly optimistic about the regime here. Of course, the State Department is in a difficult spot to admit the troubling trends since the U.S. isn’t about to do anything to slow or reverse them. The Pentagon remains (somewhat mysteriously) implacably opposed to aiding the rebels, and, you may remember, we have a diplomatic deal with the regime with huge stocks of chemical weapons in the balance.

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