Post-Assad strategy needed

To save Syria from descending into an all-out civil war, now is the time to manage the transition process.

The aftermath of a shelling by warplanes allegedly loyal to Syria''s President Bashar al-Assad in Idlib [REUTERS]
The aftermath of a shelling by jet planes allegedly loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Idlib [REUTERS]

The tables started turning on Syria’s tyrant Bashar al-Assad last year when his troops lost Wadi al-Daif and al-Hamediya in the Idlib countryside, the regime’s largest military camp in the north, to opposition forces. And the snowball effect continues. Fighting under the banner of “Jaish al-Fateh” (the Army of Conquest), some 12,000 fighters captured Idlib and Jisr al-Shugur without considerable losses.

Undoubtedly, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s initiated Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen and the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey consolidated political and material support for the Syrian fighters. The heroics of the Syrian people aside, the real decisive factor appears to reside outside the country’s borders rather than within – at least for now.

ISIL captures strategic Syrian city of Palmyra

The defeat in Idlib province coincided with the fighters successfully shattering the siege around Aleppo, which had been imposed by Iranian General Qasim Soleimani with heavy participation from Afghan mercenary militias.

The Hazara fighters from Shia regions of Afghanistan haven’t achieved much for their Iranian master on the plains of Syria. In Aleppo and Busra Harir, hundreds of Afghans lost their lives after failing to retreat in time.

Strategic gains

Recently, the Jaish al-Fateh made strategic gains in al-Mastouma camp and Jabal al-Arbaeen, posing serious threats to the Alawite stronghold. The advance towards the region poses the most significant survival struggle for Assad, his ally Hezbollah and mentor Iran.

With his loyalist troops imploding due to fatigue, demoralisation and attrition, Hezbollah is set to face greater battlefield pressure. The extremist militia is already suffering heavily in Qalamoun along the Lebanese border. On top of all this comes the humiliating defeat in Palmyra at the hands of ISIL. The regime’s troops are now in their worst ever defensive position.

While Assad faces disgracing strategic debacles, there is hardly any good news on the political front. The Syrian delegation, visiting Iran recently, begged for more help in exchange for state property. The world may have never heard of such a humiliating deal by a tyrant who wants to fund a losing war.

Iran has tried to assert its presence with the help of Hezbollah, which has been holding on to the Qalamoun heights, which offer a link to the Mediterranean shore. Interestingly, US Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Moscow in a bid to find a political solution amid Syrian fighters’ advance. The top US diplomat made the move after a meeting with Khalid Khoja, the leader of the Syrian opposition. He had categorically stated then Assad has no role in any future political settlement.

Hala Qadamani wrote an interesting reportage for French newspaper Liberation with quotes from the people of Damascus. She writes that no one is questioning whether or not the regime will fall; rather it’s about when and how it will fall. The biggest loss Assad has suffered is the support from the intelligentsia. Public approval of Assad has fallen drastically in every sphere, from military to political, from public to diplomatic.

Honour and property

While Assad’s fractured spying system struggles to remain functional, the people are forming their own committees for the protection of their honour and property.

A clip of a conversation posted on YouTube between Colonel Suhail al-Hasan alias “al-Nimer” with his commanding officer after the defeat in Jisr al-Shugur sums up the inner workings of the junta. The colonel is seen begging for munitions for his 800 fleeing soldiers.

On the economic front, the Syrian lira has hit the lowest mark in its history. In the open market, one gets 330 liras for one US dollar. Moreover, the regime has been unable to pay public servants’ salaries for the last four months.

In neighbourhoods like al-Maliki, the residents are packing their bags to leave for Europe or the Gulf region. A Lebanese newspaper quoted a minister recently saying that Beirut is preparing to host Assad loyalists.

The non-stop advance of Syrian fighters calls for a high-level conference of stakeholders in Riyadh to chalk out a future strategy ahead of the regime’s collapse. Assad wants to remain in denial mode, as has historically been the nature of totalitarian regimes. The Alawite regime is likely to be no different until the Iranians decide to pull out the carpet from beneath their feet. To save Syria from descending into an all-out civil war like Afghanistan, now is the time to manage the transition process. 

Ahmad Zaidan is Al Jazeera’s Islamabad bureau chief. He is a Syrian journalist who has covered the war in Syria since 2011.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.