As I described the other day, the Assad government is engaged in a calculated response to the unrest in the country that will allow them to continue using violence against the uprising without alienating too much of the population. The result is essentially a low-intensity civil war, restricted to certain pockets of the country. (A civil war that has, according to the UN, left over 8,000 Syrians dead through the month of February, and the numbers of deceased have grown steadily since the protests began a year ago. Internal and external refugees number nearly a quarter of a million people.)
As I see it, there are two ways for the conflict to reach some conclusion: the regime can successfully crush the opposition militarily, and Assad can be removed from power. The government is banking on being able to accomplish the first, and in this it had a pretty good week. This is evident from the removal of forces from Homs—which it apparently considers sufficiently destroyed—and turning its attention to Daraa, another restive town. Idlib, an additional key opposition city, was also retaken by the government in the last few days. With rebel factions disorganized and disunited, to say nothing of lacking the numbers and materiel to effectively engage government troops, the regime may well win. Indeed, if the political situation in the country remains unchanged over the next year, there’s not really much chance for the opposition to compete militarily.
If more Syrians begin abandoning the regime, however, all bets are off. This is what the rebels are banking on, ultimately. This (excellent) map, compiled by the Guardian using UN data, shows the extent of anti-government activity so far. Protests and demonstrations have broken out in places all over the country and—importantly—in regions where each religious group predominates.
If large swaths of the population turn against the government, the military would be hard pressed to contain the unrest. The regime’s survival thus depends on the majority of Syrians remaining on the sidelines of the conflict, and it is doing everything in its power to present the violence in any way that diverts blame from itself.
The economic situation might render all those machinations worthless, however. International sanctions have already caused the Syrian pound to plummet in value, and if conditions worsen, especially in major urban areas, the government could find itself in a bad way very quickly. In fact, some prominent Syrian business leaders have already expressed their frustrations with the regime based on economic concerns. Should the Syrian business community and segments of the population blame the economic situation on the government, they could put even greater internal pressure on the regime—a significant boon to the opposition. A military coup would not be unthinkable.
Many in the international community believe that Assad’s days are numbered—it’s a question of if, not when—and its not hard to share this view. Even if the regime proves successful militarily, too much of its legitimacy has been lost to rule effectively. (Saudi Arabia yesterday closed its embassy Damascus.) The Assad mystique is too tarnished. (If that wasn’t clear before, the release yesterday of details of thousands of Assad’s personal emails, including—naturally—links to stupid internet videos, has provided a glimpse into the life of a thoroughly isolated and out-of-touch leader.) This is a gradual process, of course, and if the question of Assad’s downfall is ‘when?’, the answer could be ‘a long time’. Low-intensity conflicts don’t tend to be quick.