- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
After two years of crowing that the end of Bashar al-Assad was nigh, the official and popular perceptions in the United States and Europe of the Syrian president’s staying power have shifted dramatically. There’s a new narrative taking hold, fueled by both media reports and assessments by Western intelligence agencies — that the Assad regime is largely stable, and making significant gains against the rebels throughout the country.
Not so fast. While the regime has made progress on a few fronts, its actual territorial gains are so far rather minor. And in other parts of the country, it’s the rebels who are still on the offensive. The Syrian war isn’t turning into a regime rout — the stalemate is only deepening.
In northern Syria, the rebels continue to make slow progress against the remaining Syrian military outposts. The "Youth Camp," one of the few remaining Syrian military strongholds in Idlib province, fell this week — in this video, Syrian rebels can be seen storming the area. As the New York Times’ C. J. Chivers noted recently, the Youth Camp and another Assad stronghold at a nearby brick factory mutually supported each other from rebel attack. With the loss of the Youth Camp, the brick factory will no doubt come under greater pressure. In Aleppo, meanwhile, Syrian rebels kept up their assault on the central prison, employing mortar shelling and car bombs.
The most active front where Assad is on the offensive is Qusayr, where rebel forces are defending the western city from a joint assault by Hezbollah and Syrian military forces. The battle has dragged on for six days, despite early regime claims of a quick victory, with Hezbollah suffering significant losses in the conflict. Given the balance of forces, Qusayr will likely eventually fall to Assad. But despite being regularly described in the press as "strategic" — much like every other contested town in Syria has been — it is not the only opposition hub for weapons flowing from Lebanon, and its strategic benefits went largely unremarked during the more than a year it was under the control of the opposition.
Elsewhere, Assad’s victories have largely consisted of preventing the rebels from making progress. He appears to have gained a stronger grip over the suburbs ringing Damascus, preventing the rebels from launching an offensive on the capital, and halted rebel gains in the south by capturing the southern town of Khirbet Ghazaleh.
Assad also has a numbers problem. As this valuable article from the Washington Post‘s Liz Sly makes clear, his gains have largely been achieved through mobilizing some 60,000 militiamen drawn primarily from the Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs. The short-term benefits of that strategy are obvious — but by increasing the sectarian nature of this struggle, Assad endangers his remaining Sunni support, which has been so vital to his family’s dynasty since his father seized power in 1970. By relying solely on minority groups — even with Hezbollah support — it is unclear how the Syrian regime has the manpower to reclaim the large swathes of territory it has lost in the north and the east.
None of this is to say that the old conventional wisdom — that Assad’s fall was just around the corner — was right all along. However, the narrative that the Syrian regime is making sweeping gains across the country is just as wrongheaded. What we are really witnessing is the beginning of a bloody conflict that, if the world does nothing to stop it, could continue for years on end.