BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power is looking less certain than his recent assertions of victory suggest, as America snubs his appeals for a partnership, Islamic State militants inflict defeats on his troops and his own Alawite constituency shows signs of growing discontent.
Far from looking invincible, the man who blamed terrorists for the rebellion against him instead is at risk of being cast as the leader under whose watch they flourished and who now can’t do anything to check — much in the way Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki was held to account for the fall of the city of Mosul.
The shift does not appear to have registered with Assad, who remains confident, his supporters say, that the United States and its allies will soon be forced to seek his partnership in an international coalition against terrorism.
President Obama is expected to spell out his own strategy for confronting the Islamic State in a speech Wednesday that will prioritize Iraq, seemingly deferring yet again any effort to confront the mess that Syria’s war has become and leaving Assad in place for the foreseeable future.
Neither the Islamic State militants concentrated in the north and east of Syria nor the more moderate, Western-backed rebels pose any immediate military threat to Assad’s grip on power. Iran and Russia show no signs of wavering in their support for his regime.
Yet there is also a growing recognition in Washington and allied capitals that the breathtaking militant gains require a broader approach to the underlying grievances that fueled their ascent, U.S. officials and diplomats say, refocusing attention on Assad’s role in the brutal suppression of the Sunni-dominated revolt against his rule.
In the weeks since Assad’s triumphant claim that he had prevailed over his foes after his victory in tightly controlled elections, his boasts seem more shaky and his approach may be about to backfire.
A string of humiliating defeats inflicted on the Syrian army in the northeastern province of Raqqah last month suggested that Assad, like many in the region and beyond, had underestimated the gathering strength of the former al-Qaeda affiliate. The Syrian government refrained from confronting the Islamic State throughout its year-long rise to power, which conveniently sustained the narrative that extremism was the only alternative, according to Syrians who speak regularly to members of the regime.
The three bases lost in the fighting had little strategic value, but the manner of the defeat jolted Assad’s supporters. Scores of captured soldiers seized from one base were dragged through the desert in their underwear before being shot. About 50 officers from another were beheaded, their severed heads spiked on poles and their decapitated bodies strewn around the streets of the city of Raqqah for pedestrians to step over and film with their cellphones, according to videos posted on YouTube.
The images of the captured Syrian soldiers have triggered a rare eruption of outrage among Alawites, the minority sect to which Assad belongs — directed as much at Assad as at the perpetrators.
Several Facebook pages have sprung up expressing Alawite unhappiness with Assad, mostly for being too soft on his opponents. Five Alawites have been detained for their involvement in the dissent, but the pages have continued.
One, called Where Are They, focuses on Alawites who have disappeared during the fighting and whom the regime is accused of making scant effort to locate.
“We will no longer trade our blood in order for you to keep your rusting chair,” said one of the postings on the page, addressing Assad. “You cannot close our mouths. We have had enough.”
Alawites are not about to join the overwhelmingly Sunni opposition and see no obvious alternative to the current regime, said Joshua Landis, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma.
“There is a lot of anger. The massacres in Raqqah were very humiliating and depressing,” he said. “This is not tantamount to the collapse of the regime. It is not an Alawite revolt.”
But the complaints speak to a growing awareness of the conundrum in which Alawites find themselves as the war drags on. Having backed Assad steadfastly throughout the rebellion, they have no choice but to stand by him or risk annihilation at the hands of an ever more radicalized Sunni force that regards their faith as pagan. The fate of the Yazidis in Iraq resonates, Landis said.
However, Alawites have also paid a heavy price in blood for their loyalty and see no end in sight to the war that Assad insisted he was winning. At least 110,000 members of the security forces and the local militias created to support them have been killed since the rebellion began, a disproportionate number of them Alawite, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The minority sect, loosely affiliated with the Shiite branch of Islam and concentrated in the mountains along Syria’s northwestern coast, comprises 10 to 12 percent of the country’s pre-war population of 24 million. If the casualty figures are true, it is the equivalent of the United States losing 9 million of its men.
There is no family that has not lost a son, and some have lost more. Towns and villages are strung with portraits of the dead. At funerals, which take place daily, tales of furious encounters between government officials and grieving relatives are commonplace, said Maher Esber, a Beirut-based activist with Syria’s minority Shiite community.
“There’s a sense of desperation. The regime tells them it is winning but on the contrary we are getting into a worse situation with no sign of light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
The concerns of the families illuminate another looming reality for the Assad regime, as the war, far from winding down, seems merely to be entering a new and potentially more dangerous phase.
After three years of fighting, the army is depleted and tired. Assad is indebted to local militias trained and funded by Iran, as well as to Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, for his government’s most important victories. Many of the Iraqi Shiite militias who also helped have gone home to fight the Sunni extremists on their own turf.
The government sustains its efforts to repress the rebellion by bombing communities that oppose it from afar, further fueling the grievances that enabled extremism to thrive.
Even if the United States wanted to partner with Assad to defeat the extremists, “it’s not clear what he would bring to the table,” said Jeff White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“What we’re seeing is the overall, uneven degradation of the regular military forces,” he said. “They’re becoming less and less capable over time.”
That is partly why Syria is so eager to join forces with the United States in the international coalition that Obama is seeking to build against the Islamic State
A new strategy has been adopted under which the Syrian government intends to focus its energies only on retaking areas it is capable of holding, according to Salem Zahran, who runs a pro-government news organization and regularly meets with members of the regime. Meanwhile, it is counting on U.S. support to eventually help it retake the parts of the country it can’t defend, he said.
“There will be a second phase of the strategy, in Raqqa, which will take place in cooperation with America,” he predicted.
But Obama has indicated that he has no intention of partnering with Assad, stressing instead the need for an increase in support for Syria’s moderate rebels. “I don’t see any scenario in which Assad somehow is able to bring peace and stability to a region that is majority-Sunni and has not so far shown any willingness to share power with them,” Obama told reporters late last month.
Western diplomats say the bigger policy debate is not over whether to cooperate with the Syrian president but how to increase pressure on him to compromise when he believes he has become indispensable. A new U.N. envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is expected to visit Damascus this week in an attempt to revive the failed Geneva peace process, which is aimed at negotiating a transition away from Assad’s rule, U.S. officials say.
But Assad feels that his position is stronger than ever, now that the Islamic State’s ascent has proved to the world that he was right about the threat posed by terrorists, according to Zahran.
“The regime believes what Obama is saying is just for media consumption,” he said. “After he called for the fall of the criminal regime, he can’t turn round completely and cooperate with Assad. But in time he will. He will have no choice.”
Suzan Haidamous contributed from Beirut.