Normative Narratives

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Conflict Watch: Syrian Rebels Advance, Assad’s Prospects Dim

(A video of Syrian’s burning a statue of Hazef-Al Assad, a symbol of the Assad families 40+ year rule in Syria)


Syrian rebels have made significant gains over the last few days, capturing strategic locations in their attempt to topple President Bashar-Al Assad. The Rebels seized the country’s largest hydro-electric dam, as well as military airports. Additionally, rebel troops have closed in on the capital city of Damascus, cutting off supply lines and highways on the way. While historically gains by the rebels have been short lived, as Assad has used aerial power to “shell” any areas the rebels captured, it seems that recent gains may be more sustainable. As Assad turns his focus towards fighting in Damascus, and his aerial supremacy is reduced, rebel gains in the periphery of the country (really anywhere not in firing range of Damascus) will become more permanent in general.

Cutting off the dam will compromise the ability of the Assad regime to provide water and energy to its loyal Alawite sect. If the advances at military airports are as significant as initial reports indicate, this could go a long way in forcing President Assad’s hand in negotiating a transfer of power in Syria. Aerial warfare has been the Assad regimes primary advantage in the 23 month Syrian civil war, without this advantage Assad prospects for military victory are virtually non-existent.

Without the ability to provide water, energy, food or security to Alawites, the regime may find its loyal supporters in a humanitarian crisis similar to the one currently affecting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons. Perhaps Alawite suffering will help convince Assad to negotiate in a way that suffering by the rest of Syrians has not.

Iran and Russia, Syria’s two strongest allies, have stated they will not send military help to the Assad regime. While one could question the legitimacy of these claims, it seems that without international help and in light of a diminishing aerial advantage, Assad will sooner rather than later realize he must negotiate with his opposition if he has any hopes of leaving the country alive (and if he hopes to secure the well-being of the Alawite minority he will leave behind).

The Syrian opposition has officially changed its message that Assad must step down in order for negotiations to begin. While it still remains firm that Assad must ultimately step down, it is willing to work with the President if it will help end the bloodshed in Syria. The opposition has offered to speak with Assad in a neutral country or in liberated areas of northern Syria.

It may seem counter-intuitive to increase military pressure while simultaneously offering a political solution to the civil war, yet this is a solid strategy. By appearing increasingly flexible, the opposition is putting the “ball in Assad’s court” in terms of ending the civil war. This will put pressure on Assad to come to the table, especially as his (Alawite) people are made to suffer and his military prospects seem increasingly bleak.

Of course, this potential for a political resolution rests on there being some element of rationality that so far has been absent from the Assad regime. Assad continues to refer to the opposition as “terrorists”, and has made no public which would leave us to believe he has backed off his position that he will never leave Syria. Still, Assad and his supporters ultimately live in the same world as us, and eventually Assad will face pressure from his own constituents to come to the bargaining table with the opposition.

Anything that weakens Assad’s position should help bring about a resolution to the Syrian civil war; a 23 month war that has claimed over 60,000 lives. Hopefully, a humanitarian crisis does not unfold for the Alawites, as most of them are innocent of any crime except being part of the group associated with Assad. However, cutting off vital supplies is certainly a tactic the opposition will consider in its attempt to “put the screws” to Assad and force him to negotiate his departure from power.

We will have to monitor the situation and see how it plays out, although advancements by the Syrian rebels are reason for cautious optimism.

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