The government of President Bashar al-Assad is tightening its control of Damascus, encircling and bombarding the remaining rebel strongholds in or near the city. There was only the sound of a few distant explosions today that appear to come from the south where the Syrian army is seeking to drive rebels from around the golden-domed Shia shrine of Sayida Zeinab 10 miles from the centre of Damascus.
The capital is quieter than it was six months when the sound of artillery constantly reverberated from the mountains nearby. There are fewer mortar rounds being fired into the city centre from rebel-held districts. The airport road, which had been closed by snipers, is open; so too is the long road north to Homs, Syria’s third largest city, and from there to the Mediterranean coast.
“People are very tired after two years fighting,” said one local observer who did not want to give his name. “Many are feeling very poor because they have lost their jobs and prices are very high. But they don’t think there is any peace without Assad. They are looking to see what will come out of a Geneva peace conference.” He said that the rebels had been discredited in the eyes of some of their former supporters as a result of the widely watched film of a rebel commander eating the heart of dead government soldier and of a 14-year-old boy in Aleppo shot in the face for allegedly profaning the name of the Prophet.
David Cameron’s pledge at the G8 on Tuesday to maintain Syria’s security services, military forces and state institutions while insisting that President Assad leave power appears to be wholly at odds with the reality on the ground. Assad’s forces have a tight grip on 13 out of 14 provincial capitals and increasingly hold the main roads between them. The one provincial capital captured by the rebels, Raqqah on the Euphrates in the east of the country, is held by Islamic fundamentalists who have no intention of maintaining Syria’s security services or military forces which they regard with fear and hatred.
Mr Cameron’s message was interpreted by some as an appeal to the leadership of the Syrian security forces to mount a coup, safe in the knowledge that they would hold their jobs under any new government.
But an important feature of the Syrian civil war is that the core of the regime has not split, unlike Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen in 2011. Assad’s fortunes are also buoyed up by the fact that he is no longer seen as an inevitable loser in the civil war inside and outside Syria.
But recent government successes such as the capture of Qusayr outside Homs do not mean that the Syrian army is going to roll up and militarily defeat the opposition which still holds large parts of the country. The rebels have been advancing near Deraa in the south, aided by foreign backers in Jordan. Predictions of a massive government offensive to drive the rebels from Aleppo may be premature, the fruit of government over-confidence and rebel hopes of frightening its allies outside the country into giving them more weapons and money to avert a supposed rebel collapse.
In any case, the government’s tactics around Damascus appear to be to encircle and isolate hardcore rebel areas like Douma, Harasta and Zamalka but not to storm them and become involved in street fighting which would lead to heavy losses among their troops.
Mr Cameron explained that the West should not repeat in Syria its mistakes in Iraq where, he claimed, existing institutions were dissolved creating a vacuum and leading to chaos. This is something of a misunderstanding of what happened in Iraq in 2003. It is true that the US helped drive the Sunni Arabs into revolt by dissolving the Iraqi army and security forces, but the Shia and Kurds, together with 80 per cent of the Iraqi population, were determined to break the Sunni Arab grip on the institutions of the state. This revolutionary change was probably unstoppable, contrary to what Mr Cameron believes.
Damascus is very different from Baghdad 10 years ago. Although streets clear by eight in the evening there is almost 24 hours-a-day supply of electricity. People often walk to work because checkpoints and road closures create lengthy traffic jams. While food like tomatoes are expensive cheap bread is available to most people, from state bakeries. In the capital, at least, Syria is a long way from an Iraqi-type collapse.