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Face the truth about Al Assad: He’s not going

Arguably, the most worrying consequence of the Syrian regime’s survival will be the sense of empowerment it will lend to countries such as Russia and Iran

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With bitter fighting continuing to afflict large tracts of Syria, where more than 7,000 people have lost their lives in just over a month, predicting the outcome of the country’s brutal civil war may appear somewhat premature. And yet, for all the sacrifices made by rebel fighters during the past two years, the likelihood that the conflict will end with President Bashar Al Assad still clinging to power in Damascus grows stronger by the day.

The resilience of the Al Assad clan in withstanding the rebels’ desperate attempts to end its 50-year domination of Syria’s political landscape has taken most western leaders by surprise. This time last year, the White House had confidently predicted that the regime could only survive for a few more weeks after the president’s brother-in-law and the Syrian defence minister were killed in a bomb attack on the country’s national security headquarters.

On reflection, though, that event seems to have been the turning point in the revival of the regime’s fortunes, not least because it persuaded Iran that it must take urgent action to prevent its long-standing regional ally from biting the dust. Teams of Revolutionary Guard officers were dispatched to Damascus to turn Syrian loyalists into competent fighters, while Hezbollah, the Iranian-controlled militia based in southern Lebanon, was ordered to send experienced combatants to reinforce the president’s cause.

The result is that, aided by deep divisions within opposition ranks, pro-Al Assad forces have managed to turn the tables on the rebels and have consolidated their grip over large swathes of the country. Rather than confidently predicting the president’s imminent demise, western leaders must now reconcile themselves to the possibility that his regime will survive for years to come.

Not even President Barack Obama’s belated decision to channel arms to vetted rebel groups — taking care they do not fall into the hands of Islamist fighters linked to Al Qaida — is likely to make a tangible difference. Without military support from the West, the rebels have little chance of making headway against Al Assad’s Iranian-backed forces, with the result that the prospect of Al Assad being toppled in the near future looks increasingly remote. That certainly seems to be the view gaining currency in Washington, where General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, told Congress he believed the Syrian president would still be in power this time next year. But even if Al Assad does somehow manage to hang on, it will be a hollow victory. For a start, he is unlikely to regain control of the whole country, no matter how much backing he gets from his Russian and Iranian allies.

Like neighbouring Lebanon, after its own 15-year civil war, Syria faces de facto division along sectarian lines, with Al Assad’s Alawite clansmen clinging to their traditional stronghold in the coastal mountain ranges and significant portions of other regions falling under the control of opposition groups — including Islamist militants who have successfully infiltrated the opposition’s ranks.

To date, an estimated two million refugees have fled the civil war, seeking sanctuary in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where the sheer size of the refugee encampments is placing the host governments under severe strain. The United Nations predicts the figure can rise to three million by next year and the US is in the process of setting up a divisional military headquarters in Jordan, ostensibly to help with humanitarian assistance, but also to lend moral support to the Jordanian royal family, long-standing allies of the West.

Arguably, the most worrying consequence of Al Assad’s survival, though, will be the sense of empowerment it will lend those countries, such as Russia and Iran, that have given Damascus their unstinting support. As for the Russians, they will take satisfaction from the fact that an important ally has been saved and that they retain access to the Syrian port of Tartus, Moscow’s only naval base in the Mediterranean.

Al Assad’s survival will also be regarded as a triumph in Tehran where Hassan Rouhani, the country’s president-elect, is said to be reviewing Iran’s nuclear programme. Had the West succeeded in its stated goal of achieving regime change in Syria, Iran would have been left isolated and under pressure to make concessions. But if Al Assad survives, the West will look weak and Rouhani may conclude Iran has nothing to fear from politicians who have no stomach for military intervention.

— The Telegraph Group, Ltd. London, 2013.