Reacting angrily to President Bashar al-Assad’s speech on Sunday calling for an end to the rebellion, the US state department said the Syrian leader was “detached from reality”. But much the same might be said of the US and of Assad’s other western and Arab foes, and with greater justification. After two years of bloody attrition, the unpalatable truth is Assad is still in power, shows no sign of heeding demands to quit and is far from beaten. The evolving reality is that Assad may yet see off his many enemies and claim victory in Syria’s civil war.
Explanations for this remarkable feat of survival lie not with Assad’s personal abilities, which are limited, nor with the durability of his domestic supporters, who are in the minority, nor with the president’s ruthlessness in prosecuting the military campaign. More potent has been his subtler achievement in convincing would-be western interventionists that awful though he is, what might follow him would almost certainly be worse. When leading Washington commentators such as David Ignatius start talking up a “truth and reconciliation” process, you kind of know the battle is lost.
This process of geopolitical re-education – it might be termed psychological counter-insurgency – has been gradual but highly effective. One powerful aspect is the highlighting of the growing role of Islamist fundamentalists inside Syria, whom Assad regularly decries as foreign terrorists threatening the Syrian nation. This jihadi “scare factor” is rooted in last February’s video message by the al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he called on pious Muslims, primarily Sunnis living in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, to help destroy the Syrian regime.
“Since then, the message has spread further afield, and the lure of joining the jihad in Syria against a Shia dictator is drawing in young men from around the world,” said analyst Tobias Feakin in The Australian. Rising numbers of volunteers, estimated at up to 2,500 in total from as far away as Indonesia and Xinjiang in China, have dispersed in myriad suspect groups including the Free Syrian Army, Liwa al-Islam, Katibat al-Ansar, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, which has close links with al-Qaida in Iraq.
The dawning realisation that Syria was not another Egypt or Libya, whose revolutions produced relatively clear-cut results, and that it might well become another failed state, harbouring al-Qaida fanatics bent on global confrontation, has had a big impact on western opinion, not least in the US. This fear has been compounded by numerous reports, widely credited in Israel and the US, that Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal could fall into jihadi hands. Barack Obama has warned Assad not to use such weapons against his opponents. The bigger fear is that they might one day be used against western targets.
The west’s hedging of bets over Syria has become glaring in recent months even as its rhetoric has intensified. Political demands, principally that Assad step down immediately and without preconditions, have become ever more inflexible. Led by France, the western position is that nothing less than regime change at the top will do. But at the same time, the argument about doing what needs to be done militarily and logistically to ensure that objective, for example by arming the rebels, seems to be over – and the rebels are the losers. Despite the rebooting of opposition forces under the umbrella Syrian National Coalition, weapons supplies and financial aid are drying up. Even the Sunni Gulf states seem to be having second thoughts as they contemplate a post-Assad Syria sliding into post-Saddam style anarchy.
Israel’s decision to build border defences across the Golan and Turkey’s deployment of Patriot missiles along its border symbolise this shifting reality. The aim now is not to liberate Syria but to isolate it and quarantine it and to contain the contagion.
The fact that the US and Britain have looked on as a second UN peace mission by Lakhdar Brahimi runs into the sand (the first, led by Kofi Annan, collapsed last year), the fact that no substantive pressure has been put on Russia’s Vladimir Putin to drop his Syrian diplomatic protection racket, the fact that military intervention is publicly and noisily ruled out and the fact that no concerted international humanitarian relief effort has been mounted to assist Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan all point to one conclusion: that the west is not serious about enforcing Assad’s demise. It is a message that Assad has undoubtedly heard.
“Despite the efforts of Brahimi – and also of more sympathetic powers such as Russia and China, as well as Assad’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah – to promote a negotiated settlement, the regime has shown no interest in acceding to a democratic transition that would lead to its ouster. And its leaders believe they are fighting the rebels to a stalemate,” said Tony Karon in Time. Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, told Karon that, whatever the US state department might say, the fact is that Assad is not budging.
“Absent some dramatic increase in external intervention, Assad could still be there in 2014. There’s nothing obvious in the current dynamic that’s going to force him out. He has barricaded the major cities with layers of security, allowing the impoverished periphery of some to fall into rebel hands, but then using his air power and artillery to devastate those neighbourhoods. Almost two years into the uprising and despite the rebels’ recent momentum, they have not yet taken full control of a single major city or town.
Despite the confident predictions coming from the rebels and their backers, nobody in the opposition today can explain how they’re going to win. The regime has the unity, it has all the heavy weapons. Many of the rebels continue to operate on the assumption that the US will intervene to tip the balance for them.”
But despite all the huffing and puffing in Washington (and London), decisive intervention is extremely unlikely. It is time the likes of Obama and William Hague admitted this reality and started dealing with what is, rather than what might have been.
Simon Tisdall is an assistant editor of the Guardian and a foreign affairs columnist. He was previously a foreign leader writer for the paper and has also served as its foreign editor and its US editor, based in Washington DC. He was the Observer’s foreign editor from 1996-98.