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Analysis

Reports of Assad’s fall have been greatly exaggerated — for now

Despite Islamic State’s seemingly unchecked advance across vast areas of Syria, the group has yet to make any critical gains; but it still remains to be seen whether the Syrian leader can hang on

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Islamic State fighters pass by a convoy in the town of Tel Abyad in northeast Syria, May 4, 2015. (Jihadist website via AP)
Islamic State fighters pass by a convoy in the town of Tel Abyad in northeast Syria, May 4, 2015. (Jihadist website via AP)

A look at the Arab press in recent days gives the impression that the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria is on the verge of elimination.

But before we pop open the champagne, it’s worth recalling that Assad’s rule has been in the same situation in the past.

The old Syria has been slowly falling apart for four years and two months, and as far back as July 2012, following the bombing of the Syrian army’s headquarters in Damascus, commentators (including this writer) predicted it would be a matter of days, weeks, or months at most before Assad’s fall.

But yet here we are, almost three years later, and the Syrian president is still clinging on to what’s left of his rule, which mostly consists of a narrow strip of land between Damascus and Latakia.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visiting troops, April 20, 2014. (photo credit: (AFP/HO/SANA)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visiting troops, April 20, 2014. (photo credit: (AFP/HO/SANA)

In recent days, the Arabic and Western media heavily dissected the latest achievements of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. The rogue jihadi organization conquered the historic city of Palmyra, which sits at a major junction in Syria, as well as the city of Ramadi in Iraq. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights assessed that the Islamic State currently controls about 50 percent of Syrian territory.

However, the Observatory’s estimates may not be entirely accurate due to the nature of the Islamic State’s rule in the country.

While it is undisputed that the group’s fighters have overrun almost all the regions along the Syrian-Iraqi border and have taken numerous Syrian cities in the north and east, the Islamic State does not technically control everything within its “borders.”

None of the warring factions, rebel or regime, are focusing their efforts on conquering the desolate desert regions spanning between the Syrian cities in the area, but the existence of vast stretches of unclaimed areas may leave room for future power shifts.

In this light, the fall of Ramadi and Palmyra to Islamic State fighters is not the watershed moment it has been made out to be, nor are recent reports of the group’s gains near the Turkish border.

The Islamist organization has already claimed quite a few monumental victories throughout its short existence, only to suffer heavy losses in battles for Syrian and Iraqi cities a short while later. Control over the city of Baiji in Iraq, for example, has already gone back and forth several times. The same is true for Homs in Syria.

The loss of the major economic center of Aleppo was long ago predicted to be a death blow to the regime. Yet some of the city has fallen and Assad still stands.

In this April 23, 2015 file photo, Iraqi security forces and tribal fighters regain control of the northern neighborhoods, after overnight heavy clashes with Islamic State group militants, in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo, File)
In this April 23, 2015, photo, Iraqi security forces and tribal fighters regain control of the northern neighborhoods, after overnight heavy clashes with Islamic State group militants, in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo, File)

Interestingly enough, what is arguably the most significant advance in Syria over past weeks has not received the extensive media coverage it deserves, most probably because the development did not involve the Islamic State.

The takeover of large areas in Idlib province by several opposition groups, including the notorious al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, has given the rebels a new stronghold, posing a direct threat to Assad loyalists in the vitally strategic neighboring region of Latakia.

No major advances on Baghdad or Damascus

How has the regime managed to survive the loss of one key Syrian region after another? There are several explanations. First, in terms of effective control and governance, the Islamic State is very nearly pushing against the upper limit of its abilities.

The group finds it difficult to make gains in truly critical areas, and thus resorts to advances in regions already boasting a clear Sunni majority in Iraq and Syria, without really posing a critical threat to the central governments of either.

At least for now, no real military advances toward Baghdad or Damascus have been attempted by the group.

The Islamic State realizes that is not sufficiently prepared for such an undertaking at this point. The group finds it easier to focus its efforts on conquering cities like Palmyra, a move resulting in plenty of media coverage but only few losses.

The second and perhaps main reason for Assad’s survival is that Iran and its allies are sparing absolutely no effort in making sure the regime not fall.

The regime’s survival is as much a strategic asset to Iran and Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah as it is to Assad himself.

There is also no clear indication that Russia has abandoned Assad either, despite pro-Saudi media reports in recent days claiming otherwise. Moscow also views the Syrian president as a highly important regional asset.

Displaced Iraqis from Ramadi cross the Bzebiz bridge fleeing fighting in Ramadi, 65 km west of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
Displaced Iraqis from Ramadi cross the Bzebiz bridge fleeing fighting in Ramadi, 65 km west of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Where does this all lead? It is not clear, but probably more of what we have seen thus far — bloodshed, executions, battles and casualties.

Syria will continue to slowly fall apart, as will its eastern neighbor Iraq. It is hard to say whether the disintegration will continue for two years or only two months; even after Assad’s downfall, whenever that occurs, the bloodshed will likely continue.

It is clear that the two Middle Eastern powerhouses, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the leading international players, the United States and Russia, have no interest in seeing the states in the region breaking down one after the other. But this bleak scenario is essentially playing out before their eyes, whether they like it or not.

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