Tide turns against Assad in Syria

The Assad regime has suffered a series of setbacks in its fight against rebel forces to the point that its ability to retain power appears to be in jeopardy, the Washington Post reports. Walter Russell Mead concurs.

Both the Post and Mead cite Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria. He says “we may be seeing signs of the beginning of the end.”

The most important signs are on the battlefield where, according to the Post, “the capture Saturday of the town of Jisr al-Shughour in northern Idlib province was just the latest in a string of battlefield victories by rebel forces, which have made significant advances in both the north and the south of the country.” Lately, government defenses have been crumbling after just a few days of fighting.

This points to another sign — turmoil within the regime. The Post reports that the regime itself is fraying under the strain of the four-year-old war. Recently, key loyalists reportedly have been ousted.

The Post attributes the shift in tide primarily to a rapprochement between “a newly assertive Saudi Arabia and its erstwhile rivals for influence over the rebels — Turkey and Qatar.” The new Saudi king, who is challenging Iran in Yemen, has also moved to shore up the flagging and deeply divided rebels in Syria, in coordination with Qatar and Turkey.

The result, says the Post, “has been an unexpectedly cohesive rebel coalition called the Army of Conquest.” This coalition has achieved most of the recent rebel successes.

But who makes up the coalition? According to the Post, it consists of “al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, an assortment of mostly Islamist brigades, and a small number of more moderate battalions.”

This leads to the obvious question of whether the toppling of Assad would be in the interests of the United States. Mead argues that it would be:

The defeat of Assad remains the best thing that could happen in a Middle East in crisis. A signal defeat for Iran in the heart of the region would help restore a balance of power between the Sunni and Shi’a that just might be the basis of a new regional order. . . .

If the Shi’a and Iranians control both Iraq and Syria, they will also dominate Lebanon and, many Sunnis worry, the region. But if Syria flips to the Sunnis, the books balance, more or less.

Mead acknowledges that, thanks in part to President Obama’s unwillingness to support moderate rebels, “both ISIS and the pro-Al-Qaeda groups are significantly stronger than any of the groups the West has flirted with over the years.” Thus, a post-Assad future is fraught with peril:

The defeat of Assad early in the war, when the rebels were less radical and less revenge-minded than they have become through years of bitter fighting, would have meant one thing. Assad’s fall will almost certainly mean something much darker now, when the alternatives to Assad have become so profoundly unpalatable.

Is the complete collapse of Assad, however much of a defeat it would be for Iran, to be wished for? Or is his neutering, a sufficient setback for the mullahs, a better outcome given the strength of ISIS and pro-Al-Qaeda groups?

In a neutering scenario, the immeasurable suffering of the Syrian people would continue. But it’s far from clear that the suffering would abate in the chaos and in-fighting that would follow Assad’s toppling.

The only thing clear to me is that Obama’s diddling in Syria and his general Middle East abdication make it nearly impossible to imagine a Syrian scenario, with or without Assad, in which U.S. interests are served.

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