An unhappy anniversary: Why the end of Bashar al-Assad is as far away as ever – and how Syria’s rebels lost the plot

Today marks three years since Syrians rose up against their President. In the time since then, unwavering support for the status quo from Russia and Iran, the unwillingness of the West to intervene, and the increasing disarray of the anti-government factions have all combined to ensure that they may never succeed, writes Patrick Cockburn

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.

A Syrian man walks with his son along a deserted street in the town of Maarat al-Numan A Syrian man walks with his son along a deserted street in the town of Maarat al-Numan (Getty Images)
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.  

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Sport
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all