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Are Assad's days numbered in Syria? Open in fullscreen

Diana Darke

Are Assad's days numbered in Syria?

Is Assad losing the love of his supporters? [AFP]

Date of publication: 30 April, 2015

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Comment: Events suggest Bashar al-Assad's war is reaching its endgame, as rebel forces advance and domestic and international allies waver, says Diana Darke.

The dynamic inside Damascus has changed, say those best placed to understand this - its ordinary residents.

For the first time in the four year uprising, almost imperceptibly the complex factors at play inside Syria look set to line up and click into place.

Bashar al-Assad's endgame might be closer than we think.

For the residents of the city this brings a deepening sense of fear - that the strange form of normality that has reigned in regime-controlled central Damascus is now under threat.

What had seemed like an almost permanent stalemate is showing signs of crumbling. The first shockwave was the sudden loss of Idlib.

Displaced civilians began arriving in Damascus telling horrific tales of climbing over corpses in the streets as they fled - of neighbours slaughtered in their homes.

Idlib has now been followed by the loss of Jisr al-Shughour, a highly strategic city that lies on the new motorway that cuts through the mountains from Aleppo to coastal Latakia, close to Assad regime's heartland.

It also controls access to the south of the country south and Hama via the low-lying Ghab valley.

These sudden gains come after the formation of an unexpected but highly effective coalition between the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups.

The alliance was said to be forged by Saudi Arabia's new king, Salman, and former rivals Qatar and Turkey.

The joint spectre of Iran and the Islamic State group have galvanised them to overcome their differences.

Internal strife

If only such unity had been achieved from the start, one cannot but wonder how many lives might have been saved. Signs of internal rifts deep inside the Assad circle, once so impregnable, are beginning to seep out.

The long-time political security chief, Rustom Ghazali, who was implicated in the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, was last week buried unceremoniously in a Damascus cemetery.

It was rumoured that Ghazali died from injuries caused by an assault, for which a rival security chief, the director of military intelligence Rafiq Shehadeh, was sacked.

     Signs of internal rifts deep inside the Assad circle, once so impregnable, are beginning to seep out.

Such squabbles leaking out from the normally sealed Assad inner sanctum are unheard of and speak volumes of the toll that four years of war - economic sanctions and the catastrophic collapse of the Syrian pound have brought to the regime.

Syria's exports have plunged from $11.3bn in 2010 to $1.8bn in 2014.

Loss of control

The regime has lost control of many of its borders. The IS and Kurdish factions are strong in the north. In the south, the last crossing into Jordan has fallen to the rebels.

This has seen Syria's export-import ratio plummet from 82.7 percent in 2010 to 29.7 percent in 2014.

IS controls the borders to the east, so one of the few land routes in and out still under official government control is the Masnaa crossing bordering Lebanon.

The regime army is worn out and its conscription drive has fuelled a mass exodus by young men desperate to escape the draft.

Many have ended up on migrant boats to Italy and Greece.

Iran is less able to send reinforcements to Syria since its Shia militia are now deployed in Iraq fighting IS.

Neither Russia nor Iran, their economies under huge strain from plummeting oil prices, are able to provide the same level of financial support as before.

The Alawi community, locked by default into support the Assad-led ruling clan, has suffered such a heavy casualty rate that every family is afflicted by loss and is questioning the rationale of continuing to support the government.

Even Louay Hussein, veteran leader of ‘Building the Syrian State', an opposition group so moderate that it was allowed to maintain its presence in Damascus, has given up on Assad. He and his deputy, Mona Ghanem, slipped away into voluntary exile.

The regime is under attack in Hasaka, its last toehold in the northern Kurdish areas, where IS has launched a surprise offensive.

In the south, other rebel groups have made significant gains in Daraa and Bosra al-Sham.

Even in Damascus IS has moved into the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp while other rebels have taken Jobar, just 2km east of the capital's Old City.

Bashar al-Assad's flurry of interviews to foreign media outlets, of late, were interpreted as a sign of confidence. Now it looks like an attempt by Assad to bluff his way out of a dead end.

His regime is being eroded from the outside and the inside, by forces beyond his control.

Whatever happens to Assad himself, the suffering of ordinary Syrian citizens is almost certainly entering a new and even more dangerous phase.

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