A war that has seesawed wildly over the past year and is now threatening to draw in other regional players is likely to pivot unpredictably many more times before it is over. Events such as the bombings that killed at least 40 people in a Turkish border town Saturday, Israel’s airstrikes against Damascus last weekend and decisions by outside powers to arm the rebels are among the many variables that could tilt the balance again.
But analysts say there is little doubt that the pendulum is now swinging in favor of Assad, potentially putting him in a strong position to set terms if the negotiations with the opposition that the Obama administration and Russia last week agreed to sponsor eventually take place.
“If things continue as they are, the government will certainly be the party that has the major advantage” in any talks, said Charles Lister of the London-based IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. “If we press pause on where we are today, it is clear the insurgency does not pose an existential threat to the regime.”
Pro-Assad analysts credit a major restructuring of government forces that has better equipped them to confront the insurgency. The ranks of the conventional Syrian army — weary, depleted and demoralized by defections, casualties and more than a year of continuous fighting — are being swelled by the deployment of some 60,000 militia irregulars trained at least in part by Hezbollah and Iranian advisers.
Most of the members of the National Defense Force are drawn from Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and they are regarded as more reliably loyal to Assad than the rank and file of the majority Sunni army, government supporters say.
“The army is 70 percent Sunni, and so the regime kept a lot of them in their barracks,” said Salem Zahran, an analyst and journalist who meets regularly with leaders of the Assad government. “The National Defense Force is made up of people who believe in the regime.”
Moreover, the militias have received training in the guerrilla tactics and urban warfare at which Hezbollah excels, and which are more suited to confronting the ad hoc rebel force, said retired Lebanese Army Gen. Elias Hanna, who now teaches at the American University of Beirut.
“They are fighting urban warfare with urban warfare instead of going at it asymmetrically,” he said.
Meanwhile, the regime can still call on its conventional superiority to project its power into areas where the rebels hold sway on the ground, including air strikes, ballistic missiles and artillery. And unlike the rebel force, which has received only sporadic supplies of relatively low-caliber weaponry from its reluctant Western and Arab allies, Assad’s military can count on steady supplies of arms and ammunition from Iran and Russia, Hanna said.