It was only a question of time. For the past four years it was never really a question of whether the regime of Bashir al-Assad, despite Iranian and Russian support, would collapse but rather when. And the “when” is very close.
Quick recap: For the past four years the tyrannical Alawite (Shiite) dictator Bashir al-Assad has been fighting a civil war against various groups of Syrian Sunni rebels whose goal is to depose of him and his regime and establish a Sunni Sharia-compliant Islamic state.
Assad’s Alawite/Shiite regime is supported by Iran, which has committed troops, weapons, missiles, financing, logistics and its proxy Shiite Hezbollah military units from Lebanon.
The Sunni rebels are divided into several groups, with different affiliations and nebulous alliances, which have a tendency to split and merge from time to time:
ISIS: the largest of the Sunni groups. Growing and expanding, it controls the biggest land segment of Syria, in the north and northeast, and is currently moving in on the “Alawite State” (a thin coastal strip between the coastal city of Latakia and the port of Tartus), the last stronghold held by the regime’s forces.
Jabhat al-Nusra: A Sunni al-Qaida affiliate that is the second-largest rebel group in Syria, that today controls most of the Syrian Golan Heights, in places up to the Israeli border. While initially an enemy of ISIS after the latter was expelled from al-Qaida, in recent weeks we’ve seen collaboration between Nusra and ISIS during the capture of the major cities of Idlib and Aleppo and a division of control between them of in those cities. There are also rumors of talks of a merger, with Nusra and other groups bolting from al-Qaida.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) and a few smaller secular rebel groups: These are supposedly the less extreme, more secular mixed Sunni, Druze, Shiite and Christian militias, commanded by ex-Syrian officers in exile, that the U.S. and Europeans are supposed to be training and arming to fight both Assad’s loyalists and rebel Jihadis. No success yet…
All the Sunni rebel groups are either self-sufficient (ISIS) or are supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the UAE and other Sunni Gulf states, mainly to defeat Iran in Syria, but with a growing wariness of the expansion of the Islamic caliphate under ISIS in all of Syria.
This war has cost the Syrian population dearly. The U.N. reported that by January 2015, there were an estimated 300,000 dead, mostly civilians. UNICEF reported that more than 500 children had been killed by February 2012, and another 400 children were reportedly arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons. By mid-April 2015, the opposition activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported: 11,021 children killed, 7,049 women killed. Many of the casualties were the result of the regimes use of inhumane barrel bombs and, despite the U.S. “red line” warning – weaponized chemicals.
And while the U.S. administration declares at every opportunity that “Assad has to go,” very little has been done, as far as I can see, to make this happen.
So why is Assad’s regime coming to a close?
A few reasons:
- The once-powerful Syrian army, which in 2011 numbered over 350,000 servicemen and women in uniform, has suffered over 40,000 dead in four years and many more wounded. Today it numbers less than 150,000. Morale is at rock bottom, recruitment is almost impossible despite aggressive and harsh punishment against draft-dodgers and their families, and desertions are higher than ever.
- Hezbollah a feared terrorist organization that was less than impressive in combat against ISIS and Jabhat, has suffered very high losses in Syria and is reluctant today to obey Iran’s command to send more troops into battle.
- Iran’s forces have suffered major losses including senior commanders. There is a growing feeling in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (the IRGC) that the cost of continuing the fight in Syria is too high, since Iran is also involved in conflicts in Iraq and Yemen.
- The rebel forces are continuing to strengthen and advance with more aid and weapons from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, while Russia is reducing support for the Assad regime.
- Today, with the fall of Idlib and Aleppo, Assad is holding only the palace in Damascus (which at the moment he refusers to leave despite intensive shelling by ISIS) and the coastal strip now nicknamed “Alawistan.”
So unless some fantastic deal emerges during the last days of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran that will allow the Iranians and Assad to at least stay, under Russian protection, in an enlarged “Alawistan,” then these may very well be the last days leading to the end of Assad’s regime.
Agree or disagree, that’s my opinion.
Lieutenant Colonel (IDF res) Gil Elan is President and CEO of the Southwest Jewish Congress, and a Middle East analyst.
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