Jonathan Spyer explains how Syrian president Bashar al-Assad may have the upper hand right now in Syria’s two-year-old conflict. “Regime forces have clawed back areas of recent rebel advance,” Spyer writes in the Jerusalem Post. “The government side, evidently under Iranian tutelage, has showed an impressive and unexpected ability to adapt itself to the changing demands of the war.”
Spyer, who recently wrote about Syrian Kurdistan for THE WEEKLY STANDARD, notes that in the ongoing battle for Damascus, Assad’s forces have had help from Hezbollah and Iranian-trained paramilitaries. “But the regime’s rallying has taken place not only on the battlefields,” writes Syper. “Assad has from the outset possessed a clear narrative of the conflict, according to which his regime is facing attack from an alliance of jihadi ‘terrorists.’”
The irony, as Spyer notes, is that the regime has allied interests with militant Sunni elements in the past, most notably by facilitating the entry of foreign fighters into Iraq to fight U.S. forces when they were stationed there. However, as Spyer writes, Assad’s narrative is finding some sympathetic ears in the West, where the Boston marathon bombings “have re-focused western attention on the threat of Sunni jihadi terrorism.”
Indeed, the regime’s storyline has of late dovetailed with the bombings, focusing on the Chechen ethnicity of the Tsarnaev brothers. Last month, two Christian Orthodox bishops were abducted in northern Syria, and their kidnappers were reportedly Chechens. There does seem to be an element of Islamist from the North Caucasus, but as Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al Monitor, the number and role of fighters from this region should not be overstated. “There are countries with much bigger numbers,” said Zelin.
Maybe a Chechen group really was responsible for kidnapping the two bishops, but given how the regime and its allies have used kidnappings over the last few decades to send political messages, it’s just as likely a regime operation. In any case, the timing of a kidnapping of Christian bishops attributed to Chechen jihadists serves as a reminder that the Assad regime allow follows the U.S. media, where the Boston marathon bombings have dominated the news cycle for the last three weeks.
Assad knows that keeping the White House on the sidelines and preventing it from tipping the balance of power against him on the battlefield with money, arms, and the coherent command structure that would follow cash and weapons, is a large part of his struggle. Assad’s information operations then are largely keyed to American sensibilities, playing not only on the Obama administration’s misgivings, but also the fears and concerns of the American public. In this instance, Assad’s intended takeaway is simply this: why would Americans want to support in Syria the same people who bombed an American city? Don’t Americans recognize that since I’m fighting the same people, I’m essentially an American ally.
Assad’s information campaign is part of a larger war in which, as Spyer writers, Russia, Iran, its proxy Hezbollah and the Maliki government in Iraq are all playing a vital role.” In the end, the resistance bloc’s ultimate targets aren’t the Syrian rebels, but Western interests, above all the American position in the Middle East, as well as our allies, including U.S. friendly Arab states like Jordan as well as our key regional partner, Israel.
“Only a comparable level of cohesion and commitment from the rebellion and its backers is likely to prove sufficient to finally terminate Assad’s rule,” Spyer concludes. “This shows no signs of emerging. So Assad isn’t winning, despite the new bullishness of his supporters. But right now, he isn’t losing either.”