Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad isn't counting his days; he might still have another year to spend as the president of Syria. This is what many of his key allies believe, and it’s the painful reality some of his enemies started to acknowledge. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said a week ago there was no indication the Syrian crisis was going to be resolved anytime soon: ”The solution that we hoped for, that is to say: Bashar's fall, the rise of the opposition to power, there are no current signs that are as positive as that.” Fabius contradicted his prediction last month that the end was near for Assad. King Abdullah II of Jordan made similar remarks in an interview: “Anyone who says that Bashar’s regime has got weeks to live certainly doesn’t know the truth on the ground.” The UN-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, cut it short in front of the UN Security Council: “The regime could cling to power for now, but the country is breaking up before everyone's eyes.”
It’s before everyone’s eyes that things started to change. In the last days of 2012, many were suggesting the regime will be toppled by March 15, 2013, the revolution’s second anniversary. Suddenly and after Assad’s last speech on Jan. 6, 2013, question marks were placed after "Assad will fall."
In his speech, Assad presented a transition plan, saying that the prerequisite to a political solution was the end of violence and "terror." The embattled president called for a national dialogue that would draw up a new charter that will be put to a national referendum that will be followed by a general elections and a blanket amnesty. Though he claimed there were no partners for peace.
Western officials denounced Assad's speech; some even said he was detached from reality. But less than a week later it was clear the man knew what he was talking about. Hence he wasn't detached. What happened and what are the elements that turned the situation upside down?
Several elements helped the regime survive, some internal, others external, and the most important of all the opposition itself.
The Syrian opposition fought for one goal from the first day of the revolution, the fall of the house of Assad. Despite the fact they had a loud voice, they did lack a unified one. Differences were far greater than those being solved, but still that was part of the problem, not all. Al-Nusra Front, referred to as Jabhat al-Nusra, a main fighting group within the Syrian armed opposition, played a vital role in raising fears in the U.S. and the West that the fall of Assad might be bad news. The group affiliated with Al-Qaeda was designated by the United States as a terrorist organization late in 2012, for allegedly receiving money, weapons and manpower from Al-Qaeda. This accusation was denied by the head of the opposition coalition, Maath Al-Khatib. He called on the U.S. to reconsider its decision.
Neither Washington nor Europe can tolerate the existence of a “Taliban-like” state in the heart of the Middle East, on the borders with Israel, and only few hundred miles from Europe. It’s not a matter of emotions, rather a national security question: Who can give the super powers a clear answer to such a question!
Another element, maybe connected to the one before, was the change in tactics adopted by the Syrian Army. The regime emptied areas around Damascus from people, on Russian advice. Russia wanted to see fewer civilians killed to lessen the pressure on its ally.
The change in tactics raised the regime’s steadfastness and helped the Syrian army in regaining ground around Damascus and in Homs. Some opposition sources suggest a “Syrian, Iranian, Russian joint military command is putting [together] the war plans.” These claims we weren’t able to confirm from independent sources.
The Syrian chemical arsenal, long-range missiles, and anti-aircraft systems, were also of a deep concern to the West in general, but mainly to Israel and the U.S.. Several high-profile officials in Washington and Tel Aviv warned against the risk of chemical weapons from Syria falling into the hands of Hezbollah. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Israel targeted a post on Syria's border with Lebanon, to convey a clear message to whom it may concern that “we are serious!"
What is confirmed is that there is an international consensus that the war in Syria should end, or else the Syrian fire will set the region ablaze. The main rift among the main players in Syria is whether Assad can run for the 2014 elections or not. But even if they agreed on everything, they all know that arms won’t be laid down, and whoever rules will have to face the bitter, Afghanistan-style reality.
The idea that the regime only had days remains. One reason may be the consistent underestimating of Assad and his base of support in Syria, as well as the commitment of his allies, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. According to a pro-Assad Lebanese politician, Arab players in Syria were warned that if the flow of weaponry and money continued, part of the battle might be transferred to the capitals and cities of the countries sending them. He added “it shouldn't be only Syrians and Syrian cities that suffer.” In any case, there is no longer any doubt that the Syria crisis is a regional conflict. As Al-Monitor wrote last month, given the many forces in play, “the ‘final days’ may be more illusion than reality.”
Ali Hashem is an Arab journalist who is serving as Al Mayadeen news network's chief correspondent. Until March 2012, Ali was Al Jazeera's war correspondent, and prior to Al Jazeera he was a senior journalist at the BBC. Ali wrote for several Arab newspapers, including the Lebanese daily Assafir, Egyptian dailies Almasry Alyoum and Aldostor, the Jordanian daily Alghad, and also contributed to The Guardian.