As the first wave of the Arab uprisings broke in early 2011, President Bashar al-Assad sounded confident that Syria would be immune to the turmoil. He was not alone: at a meeting of 10 foreign ambassadors in Damascus in February that year the diplomats without exception dismissed suggestions that the revolutionary turmoil in Egypt and Tunisia might spread to Syria.
The conviction that Syria was more stable than other Arab states was rooted in the belief that Mr Assad was relatively popular; Syria’s long opposition to Israel and the US gave it powerful nationalist credentials; abject poverty was less than in Egypt and Yemen. Yet, within a month of the ambassadors’ meeting, protests began to gather pace and the government responded brutally and with extreme violence, treating dissent as a revolutionary attempt to overthrow the state, similar to the Muslim Brotherhood insurgency of 1979-82 which concluded with the slaughter of some 20,000 people in Hama. Many believe that it was the government’s overreaction that turned protests into an insurgency. The government claims that from the beginning it was facing an armed Islamist revolt funded and supplied by the Gulf monarchies allied to Western intelligence services.
With what, in retrospect, seems like embarrassing speed, foreign governments – and many Syrians – swung from saying nothing would happen to treating the departure of President Assad as a foregone conclusion.
They cited the precedent of Libya where Muammar Gaddafi had just been overthrown, but this was based on a basic misunderstanding of the situation in both Syria and Libya. The Libyan regime was isolated internationally and had fallen because of the Nato air campaign, not the strength of the rebels. Syria was allied to Russia, which blocked any UN-mandated action, and Iran, which was not going to see its most important ally in the Arab world overthrown.
The decisive year was 2012 when the rebels captured swathes of countryside and took parts of Damascus and Aleppo. But by the end of the year, the government still held all 14 provincial capitals and the most important roads.
One local capital, Raqqa, which lies on the Euphrates, did fall a year ago, but its captors were not the Western-backed Free Syrian Army but jihadi groups, notably the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).
The higher profile of the jihadists was much in the interests of the government, which had long claimed that the opposition was dominated by al-Qa’ida (true to the spirit of Middle East conspiracy theories, the opposition then claimed that Isis was in league with the government, asserting, against much evidence to the contrary, that the Syrian army and Isis seldom fought each other).
By the end of 2012 it was clear that the rebels could not win without full-scale foreign military intervention. But to many, this was not obvious at the time because government forces pulled back from outlying positions and concentrated on holding strategic areas. A problem for the opposition was that the whole purpose of their exiled movement was to provoke a Libyan-type intervention. When this did not happen, it had no plan B to fall back on.
The current situation is a political and military stalemate. One of the many problems facing any peace talks is that power in Syria is highly concentrated on the government side in the presidency and the security services. Any political “transition” implies power-sharing which would be impossible to implement in the central government given the levels of distrust and hatred. The only feasible power-sharing is on a geographical basis, with each side holding the territory where they are strongest.
If the opposition failed to win in 2011-12, what are the chances of the government winning now? It is advancing in important areas such as the Qalamoun mountains on the Lebanese border and in and around Aleppo, but it is doing so at a snail’s pace and its forces are overstretched. Its main tactic is to seal off rebel-held enclaves and bombard them with artillery and from the air, so that people are forced to flee. This is hardly a way to win the hearts and minds of the population, but the rebels have not found an answer to it.
A strength of the Syrian government is that it has maintained its unity, and its opponents have not. Unlike in Libya, there have been few high-level defections and, while there have been many desertions from the army, whole units have not changed sides. In many revolutions the insurgent side has split after victory and civil wars have followed. But in Syria the opposition has already been fighting its own bloody civil war since 3 January. This tends to discredit all the armed opposition and is, in any case, unlikely to produce a clear winner.
The battle between Isis and the rest of the armed opposition has been good news for President Assad over the past few months. So, too, is the furious dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been the main funders and suppliers of the rebels. It adds a new layer of complexity to the struggle for Syria, since Saudi Arabia has now declared the Muslim Brotherhood, Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis to be “terrorists”, as President Assad did long ago. It is difficult to see how the Saudis and the Americans can successfully create a rebel army capable of fighting both the Assad government and the jihadi insurgents.
To survive is not to win. President Assad remains ruler of a ruined land and does not have the resources to win a decisive victory. But unless the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and their allies are prepared to fight a long war in order to exhaust the government in Damascus, there is no reason he should not stay in power.