The Syrian regime and the armed rebellion it faces are like two boxers who have been in the ring for too many rounds. Both are bloodied and bruised, but the regime is ahead on points. This is despite severe disadvantages and shortcomings, some of them self-inflicted.
The regime suffers a potentially debilitating shortage of combat manpower and has made its own task harder by failing to introduce convincing political reforms that might defuse opposition or help pacify and secure areas wrested back from the rebels. Most public institutions and much of the civil service are ineffective or paralyzed, impeding the government’s ability to enhance the state’s authority by restoring services and rehabilitating or reconstructing housing, industry, and infrastructure. In parallel, the armed conflict has intensified the country’s long-standing problems of corruption and cronyism, raising costs of strategic imports such as wheat while reducing the credit that the regime’s external backers make available to the government.
These are major challenges, but the Assad regime looks set to keep its edge. Its forces have made grindingly slow but seemingly inexorable advances around Aleppo and Damascus since October 2013. In parallel, the army is pacifying a small but growing number of urban neighborhoods and semirural communities by coercing them into accepting local truces—especially in the Damascus area—freeing up troops to fight elsewhere. And although the regime lacks any realistic plan or prospect to rebuild the national economy once the conflict is over, it has stabilized the national currency and food supply.
The Assad regime is certainly clawing its way back to a position of dominance. But it can only maintain this so long as the armed conflict endures.
A TELLING EDGE
Nearly three years since Syria’s army was called in to quell the country’s popular uprising, the force’s superior training, organization, and firepower are starting to translate into a decisive advantage. The regime has shored up its positions in the north, and is in a good position to fend off rebels advancing from the south.
As John Brennan, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, said in a public talk in March 2014, “Syria has a real army” that is “a large conventional military force with tremendous firepower.” It benefits significantly from Iranian and Russian advice and new training in urban warfare as well as from the infusion of non-Syrian combat manpower, principally from the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard or other volunteers. But it is more than holding its own.
Though the regime is short on professionally trained combat manpower—its weakest point militarily—the shortage may be exaggerated. Army casualties are almost certainly significantly lower than the opposition’s claims of some 60,000 dead, while its total strength is probably higher than estimates of 40,000–80,000 in its dependable units. Israeli military intelligence, for example, believes combat losses, defections, and desertions (those not reporting for duty) have brought the Syrian Army down to half of its pre-2011 force levels, but even this leaves it with 200,000 men.
Nonetheless, regime forces are tightly stretched. This limits their ability to advance on several fronts at the same time. The army’s reluctance to incur high casualty rates and lack of follow-on forces preclude making decisive breakthroughs on any single front.
Anecdotal evidence moreover suggests that the Alawi community is growing more bitter because it is compelled by the Assad family to bear a disproportionate share of military casualties. Also growing is its resentment of the plethora of local militias sponsored by the regime, which increasingly engage in criminal forms of self-financing and are disorganized and unruly, proving unable to fight effectively in the battle that broke out at the end of March for the town of Kessab on the border with Turkey.
Still, the regime holds its core social and geographical base and is resorting to new measures to rally support, such as mobilizing university and vocational students into “Baath Battalions.” These are said to be 10,000 strong, intended to assume guard duties behind frontlines to free up regular army units for other tasks.
And it is evident that army defections to the opposition have almost completely stopped, even though a considerable number of Sunnis—who form the vast majority of defectors—still serve in the army, security agencies, and police. They are believed to be concentrated in units that the regime has so far avoided testing in battle to reduce the risk of defection. Yet, those units would probably form the army’s reserve force for use in repelling any rebel advance from the south against Damascus.
Although its edge remains tenuous and marginal, the army is also better positioned thanks to gains it has made since October 2013. After a seesaw battle lasting nearly two months, it wrested undisputed control of the strategic corridor running between the towns of Khanaser and Safira to the east of Aleppo, enabling it to resume supplying its garrisons in the area by land and to secure the local international airport. An internecine war that broke out in early January 2014 between a broad rebel coalition and the jihadi Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (commonly known by the acronym ISIS) helped the army, which is now battling for the industrial zone of Aleppo. The fight for Aleppo is anything but over. Yet, should the army succeed in encircling rebel strongholds there as it intends, cutting off their supply lines to Turkey, its gains will drive a wedge between opposition-held areas in the west and east of Syria and turn the tables decisively for the first time since the rebels entered Aleppo in July 2012.
The army has moreover improved its ability to defend Damascus following its successful offensive in the mountainous region of Qalamoun to the northwest of the capital. In November 2013, rebel spokesmen had described their position in Qalamoun as “excellent … we are dominant,” claiming to have tens of thousands of fighters in the area. But army advances enabled the regime to resume normal traffic on the Damascus-Homs highway running through Qalamoun in the second half of January and to cut off rebel supply lines from Lebanon in the area of Zabadani near the capital and further north toward Homs. While the fall of Yabroud, the last main rebel bastion in Qalamoun, on March 16, followed by Rankous to the north of Damascus on April 7, has not ended rebel activity in the area, it positioned the army to redirect its attention to the looming threat to Damascus from southern Syria.
PACIFICATION, ASSAD STYLE
The regime’s Achilles’ Heel is political rather than military. It remains unwilling— and essentially unable—to capitalize on its military gains politically by, for example, showing seriousness about negotiating an end to the conflict and embarking on a genuine transition. Consequently it has been unable to win back the majority of Syrians who turned against it, including a large part of its former social base in rural areas. Its political standing is extremely low even in middle-class, urban areas that it technically controls, to which a recent public opinion poll in Aleppo attests.
The regime has responded to its political weakness with a coercive pacification strategy of imposing local truces on city neighborhoods and suburbs after subjecting them to blockades that prevented the transfer of food and medicine and to constant bombardment for months. Brutal though it is, this approach has had some tentative successes since the start of 2014, especially in the Damascus area, where the army had already taken a string of southern suburbs in October and November 2013. This has improved its defensive position around Damascus, and steadily pushed the war back from the center of the capital since late 2013.
Perversely, the current focus of international diplomacy on securing local ceasefires as a means of improving humanitarian aid access in Syria inadvertently complements the regime’s pacification strategy. The ceasefires are struck entirely on the regime’s terms and are not mediated by any outside body. Under terms negotiated by army officers familiar with the local communities, food supply is resumed—wholly or partially—and civilians are allowed safe passage. In a few areas, government teams are reconstructing roads and buildings. Local truces are occasionally portrayed as “national reconciliation” and accompanied by the raising of the official Syrian flag over formerly besieged areas.
In return, rebels are required to surrender heavy weapons but allowed to retain their individual firearms. They continue to patrol their neighborhoods, sometimes in parallel with the government’s police force where those officers have also returned. In places such as Beit Sahm, Babila, and Yilda, some rebels have been vetted and cleared by regime security services and allowed to leave; regime sources claim this covered 1,500 rebels in just three neighborhoods by late February 2014. Hundreds more rebels have reportedly been placed on the payroll of the regime’s National Defense Force made up of local militias, but they are treated as autonomous, belonging neither to the regime nor the opposition.
This dovetails with the policy the regime has pursued for at least a year of easing its shortage of combat manpower by devolving military support roles to local communities. It has encouraged them to set up their own neighborhood watches—often labeled “Popular Committees,” although they comprise local inhabitants of varying sectarian affiliation rather than Alawis or shabiha (regime thugs). This effectively neutralizes them. Regime forces stay away as long as these quasi-militias keep out all other armed outsiders, relieving the army of the need to maintain garrisons and freeing up troops for other duties. In Aleppo and some of its outlying countryside, the regime has even been able to recruit predominantly Sunni pro-regime militias such as the Baath Battalions, who now bear the brunt of fighting inside the city.
Implementation of local truces has been uneven, and the opposition has repeatedly accused the regime of reneging on its commitments. But the involvement of Republican Guard officers in arranging pacts is regarded by some as evidence of presidential approval.
In any case, the truces represent a partial victory for the regime, serving its professed preference for dialogue with opponents inside the country—who are deemed genuine, and patriotic—over internationally mediated negotiations held abroad with an exile opposition and “foreign terrorists.” This narrative lacks credibility, but it has gained credence after the collapse of the Geneva II peace talks spearheaded by a collection of international brokers and representatives in exile. Reflecting this, opposition website all4syria noted that six opposition figures returned from exile in mid-March and claimed another 140 were processing applications to go back to Syria. Pro-regime figures have also reportedly been promoting local Track II initiatives in places like Aleppo, where they propose to reconcile inhabitants of the rebel-held eastern and government-held western parts of the city.
Consolidation of the regime’s pacification strategy depends heavily on what happens next on the main battlefields. Should the rebels make significant gains, especially in the south, this could reveal the regime’s grip on newly pacified areas to be shaky indeed. But although the truces are tenuous and some have already broken down—sometimes repeatedly—the trend is toward consolidation. If the regime maintains its military momentum in coming months, its pacification strategy may start to make a significant difference in the political dynamics of the Syrian conflict.
BREAD AND BUTTER COUNT, TOO
A crucial complement to the regime’s pacification strategy has been its success in stabilizing the national currency and food supply in government-held areas. This is not a reflection the resilience of public finances or the revival of anything approaching normal economic activity. Indeed, national economic conditions are catastrophic, with real gross domestic product estimated to have fallen to around half its pre-2011 level, unemployment above 50 percent, and over half the population at or below the poverty line. The improvement is largely due to massive external support. As the war economy has routinized, rudimentary trade networks and flows have emerged—both internally and across borders—improving food supply, slowing inflation, and enabling the regime to extract revenue from crony businesses and what remains of the private sector.
The strengthening of the Syrian lira offers the most telling indication of underlying trends in the economy and public finances. Its exchange rate improved from a low of SL320 to $1 in July 2013 to around SL140 by the end of the year. It remained remarkably consistent at that level until the second half of March 2014, when it slipped to SL165. This places it in a range three times weaker than the pre-crisis exchange rate of SL47 to the dollar, which is remarkable for a war-ravaged economy under severe sanctions.
The lira’s revival is the result of a three-phase stabilization plan launched by the central bank in July 2013 as well as several other factors. A $3.6 billion credit line from Iran; Iranian and Venezuelan shipments of crude oil, which is refined in northwest of Homs in Baniyas; and a major drop in imports, consumption, and public investment all reduced demand for hard currency. And a reduction in subsidies and other spending in opposition-held areas also helped shore up the lira. Possibly as important has been the massive inflow of Gulf funding—from private and public sources alike—for the rebels and for humanitarian relief, which has greatly boosted overall cash liquidity in the war-torn economy, as some Gulf analysts now recognize.
The rough balance of supply and demand for foreign currencies has eased the government’s fiscal burden, enabling it to expend some $300–400 million a month on refining imported fuel and to improve the food supply. In 2013, it imported two and a half million tons of wheat to make up for the massive shortfall in local harvests, for example, while maintaining food trade with Jordan, despite rebel control of part of the international highway near Deraa in the border area. Coupled with strategic moves such as the construction of new grain silos in Sweida in southern Syria and in the coastal region, a reduction of overall demand for food due to the outflow of some 3 million refugees, and the inflow of international humanitarian assistance, the result has been improved food supply and distribution compared to a year ago.
A corollary has been to slow inflation rates for basic commodities in most government areas. Inflation is estimated to have averaged 80–100 percent annually in 2011–2013, but according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the rate of price increase had slowed very considerably by late 2013, down to 1 percent for the month of October. That trend looked set to continue in the first quarter of 2014. And despite high annual rates of inflation in 2012–2013, the government maintained public salaries. This is critically important because the state sector remains one of two essential pillars of the economy (along with agriculture) and underpins the regime’s social control.
All this has been possible despite very considerable financial leakage resulting from extensive corruption and nepotism in the allocation of credit and the awarding of public contracts. That is a significant indicator of the resilience of the regime’s predatory war economy.
Banking on this, the government recently earmarked a modest budget for public investment for the first time since 2011 and is seeking to attract businessmen to reinvest in the relatively safe coastal region. It also approved the launch in December 2013 of a new private airline, Kinda Airlines. Besides projecting an air of confidence, this reflects the army’s success in securing the area around Syria’s main international airports.
BRUTAL RESILIENCE, BUT BRITTLE AFTERMATH
Ironically, the Assad regime will face its biggest challenge as soon as it starts to tackle critical postconflict tasks of political consolidation, institutional rehabilitation, and economic reconstruction. At that point, the means it has pursued to ensure its own survival can no longer suffice. Indeed, they will pose its most insurmountable obstacles.
The most graphic instance of the self-inflicted bind in which the regime will inevitably find itself is the economy, where the scale of physical destruction and deindustrialization is comparable to “the level of World War II,” as Syrian business editor Jihad Yazigi described it. A report released in March by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency estimated cumulative economic losses at $84.4 billion in 2011–2013, including $41.2 billion in lost capital stock with an 81 percent drop in private investment. “Even if the conflict ceased now and GDP grew at an average rate of five per cent each year,” the report added, it could “take the Syrian economy 30 years to return to the economic level of 2010.”
But the grim reality is that no combination of sources—including the wealthier Friends of Syria countries, Iran and Russia, and Syrian businessmen at home and abroad—is likely to provide the infusion of capital needed to truly rebuild the economy.
It is in this context that the regime will additionally have to rehabilitate the state’s civilian administrative apparatus to restore key social services, rebuild housing and infrastructure, provide basic law enforcement, and generate revenue. Syria’s civil service of between 1.2 and 1.5 million has mainly survived so far by dint of bureaucratic routine and the continued payment of salaries, but this cannot disguise its paralysis. The Assad regime studiously maintains the trappings of a functioning system, but this is a dysfunctional state of hollowed-out and disarticulated institutions.
While the regime may respond by directing scarce resources to key sectors and encouraging rent-seeking behavior by public officials and crony businessmen, as it has always done in the past, the resources to maintain this system have shrunk immeasurably and will not suffice. The regime will have to not only contend with expectations from core social constituencies that it cannot meet but also struggle to dismantle or contain the proxy military actors it brought into being during the conflict, which will assert their own economic agendas and political autonomy.
The Assad regime has survived through brutal resilience in wartime. But it will prove fatally brittle in the aftermath.
This article is part of a series on the state of the Syrian conflict that includes pieces on the political opposition, the armed rebellion, and each side’s prospects.