“Why Syria’s Assad heads to Geneva from a position of strength,” by Joshua Landis

Analysis: Why Syria’s Assad heads to Geneva from a position of strength
By Joshua Landis
for Aljazeera America, Edited by Tony Karon
January 22, 2014

His army is stronger, his allies are more committed and regime’s capacity for brutality has kept it in charge.

Syrian troops celebrate as they take the village of Haydariya on May 13 as part of a push to cut supply lines to their opponents in the strategic Qusayr area of Homs province.Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

As representatives of Syria’s Assad regime and some of its opponents sit down Wednesday for their first direct negotiations since the rebellion began three years ago, the grim reality facing the Syrian opposition is this: President Bashar al-Assad comes to the negotiating table in Switzerland apparently stronger today than at any time in the last two years. Thus his cavalier tone ahead of the talks, dismissing opposition representatives as a “joke” and brushing off Secretary of State John Kerry’s and the opposition’s demand that he relinquish power and accept a “transitional governing body.” Instead, Assad maintains, Syria will hold elections this year, and “I see no reason why I shouldn’t stand.”

Understanding why Assad’s regime survives more than two years after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a “dead man walking” is critical for gauging the outcome of the Geneva II talks.

The regime’s resilience is based, first and foremost, on the Syrian Army. Without its loyalty, Assad would likely have fallen as quickly as did Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But while many soldiers and officers did join the rebellion, most did so as individuals; few entire units defected and no entire divisions did. Structurally, the military held together, and it was able to replenish its ranks through intensive recruitment among the Alawite minority, where many are loyal to the regime and still more live in mortal fear of sectarian retribution at the hands of the Sunni-led armed rebellion. The same factors allowed the military to expand its capabilities through the paramilitary Popular Committees, often called shabiha. And it has also been able to enlist the support in critical battles of units of the Shia Hezbollah militia from neighboring Lebanon, whose leaders recognize that their own military fortunes depend on maintaining the re-supply lines that the Assad regime has long provided.

Just as important as the military’s loyalty to the regime has been its superior armaments. Even if rebel fighters, who number well in excess of 100,000 by most estimates, outnumber the Syrian Arab Army, in any battle for territory they are often little match for the Syrian Army’s dramatic technological and organizational advantage. Rebel militias have no answer for the artillery, armor and air power of the Syrian military. Perhaps even more importantly, the rebels have no central command. And it is difficult to imagine, today, how the rebels could plausibly overcome these disadvantages.

The fragmentation and radicalization of rebel fighting forces, over whom there is no clear political command, has been the opposition’s greatest weakness. Had a unified political-military command emerged among Syria’s rebels in the first year of the uprising, at the height of optimism over the Arab Spring, the United States and Europeans might well have been persuaded to give direct military backing to the uprising. Today, such hopes have been dashed.

Infighting among rival militias battling for control over rebel-held areas has, in recent weeks, cost over 1,000 lives. The prospect of militia chaos combined with widespread human rights abuses, the radicalization of the militias, and an estimated 10,000 foreigners fighting on the rebel side have spooked Western leaders, even amid the anguish caused by images depicting gruesome torture and murder in the dungeons of the regime.

Few policy-makers talk about “good guys” in Syria anymore; some — most notably former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden last December — even argue that a rebel victory would be worse than an Assad win. Not even the recent emergence of a larger militia coalition, the Islamic Front, to organize rebel fighting and challenge forces aligned with Al-Qaeda has been able to end rebel chaos.

Foreign involvement in the Syrian civil war has also worked strongly to the advantage of the regime. Iran and Russia have proven to be far more reliable as allies to Assad than the U.S. and Gulf Arab states have been to the rebels. From day one of the revolt, Assad’s top concern has been that the U.S. would invade. He and his generals were convinced that they could survive so long as F-16s did not appear over the Damascus horizon. So far, their assumption has proven to be correct.

Rhetoric and action gap

Rarely has the gap between U.S. rhetoric and action been wider than it has been on Syria: President Barack Obama proclaimed during the first months of the uprising that “Assad must step aside,” which was read as a statement of intent by the rebels but which has produced negligible concrete action. Even when Washington proclaimed that Assad had crossed Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons, no retribution rained down. The U.S. electorate has no appetite for further wars in the Middle East. So, while Obama was able to strike a deal ridding Syria of all WMD, to the opposition that success was a damp squib. They had expected Washington to deal Assad a crippling blow, turning the fight in their favor. Instead, Washington struck a chemical-weapons dealthat saw Assad dispense with a category of weapons that had played very little role in the civil war, while effectively strengthening his and his allies’ diplomatic position.

Obama made clear in his pivot on launching a punitive strike on Syria that he believes the U.S. has practically no interest in the country’s civil war. Syrian opposition figures look at the fact that the U.S. has spent less than $2 billion on Syria, the equivalent of three days’ spending at the height of the Iraq war, and see little reason to expect much from Washington. Even those opposition groups who’ve agreed to go to Geneva II are not convinced by Secretary of State John Kerry’s insistence that Assad will have to agree at the talks to form a sovereign “transitional government.” Kerry took charge of the State Department last year declaring his intention to change Assad’s “calculation” about his ability to hold on to power, but instead it is Washington’s calculations, rather than Assad’s, that have changed.  How he will be made to step aside on the basis of the current balance of forces remains a mystery.

Assad has been extraordinarily ruthless in pursuing his survival, and such ruthlessness can have a decisive effect in determining the course of a war. The most recent U.N. report about “industrial scale killing of detainees” made for blood-chilling reading, chronicling the regime’s brutality and willingness to destroy whole neighborhoods in order to kill rebel fighters sheltering within them. The carnage wrought by Assad’s forces has been breathtaking — one in three Syrians today has been displaced from their homes by the war.

Assad’s game plan was to confront unarmed civil disobedience with gunfire, betting that turning the uprising into an armed rebellion would push extremist forces to the fore, which would alienate key Syrian and foreign stakeholders. He prioritized geography, withdrawing from the regions that hold less strategic value or are ungovernable by his regime in order to consolidate his hold on core geographic assets, such as Damascus, Homs, Hama and the highways linking them to the Alawite population centers on the coast. Although he ceded control of the poorest and most heavily Sunni provinces of northern and eastern Syria, his army has been able to retain bases in every major northern city. Government artillery and aircraft continue to bombard rebel-held areas at will, creating chaos and sowing dissention.

So, although Assad’s representatives have gone to the negotiating table in Switzerland, it is not clear they are there to seek compromise. But others might.

While Assad insists that his army is “making progress,” it is not at all clear that he can retake Syria or that Syria’s allies will continue to bankroll his attempt to do so. Iran and Russia may well be content to have the Assad regime survive in only half of Syria if Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the West agree to the other half for the rebels. Even then, a deal remains a distant prospect. Most Syrians today reject the notion of partition or even autonomous regions, but the military stalemate has endured for almost two years. On the eve of the Geneva talks, Syria’s Kurds declared unilateral autonomy in the far northeast, where they hold military power and comprise the majority of the population. Syria is effectively divided, and none of the military forces in the field appear capable of reuniting it under their control. Negotiated settlements to end wars tend to reflect the balance of forces in play; the idea of Assad stepping aside for a consensus-based national unity government is quite at odds with the current balance of geopolitical and military forces. For that reason, it is unlikely to be achieved at Geneva II.

Comments (227)

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201. Syrialover said:

Wow, have we got some speed readers here! I got two thumbs down before my detailed post above even settled on the page.

We can just see them pushing a panic button at the opening words “…deny any likelihood of the Assad regime being connected to al qaeda atrocities”

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January 30th, 2014, 11:00 pm


202. Syrialover said:

UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, sitting and negotiating with the Assad regime delegation in Geneva, knows.

He knows about them. He knows what they have done to their fellow Syrians and understands their criminal mentality.

That’s because he was Algerian Foreign Minster for the government that created the brutal and sinister situation outlined in #192 above.

Brahimi then somehow went on to enjoy a privileged career as a UN functionary, despite being personally unimpressive and carrying the air of not really caring what happens. He advanced in a world where the bar has been set very low and the talent pool kept very shallow for representatives of the Arab world.

But maybe Brahimi is the right sort of person to sit down with the Assad regime. He is able to sit there placidly, not surprised or bothered by the stupidity and lies. Knowing he’ll keep his job and his status and paycheck regardless.

Roll on to the post-Brahimi era, the day when the Arab world is represented properly by people of high calibre, who competed for their jobs and daily prove they are equal to their international peers. They are there in the Arab Spring generation, ready for their chance.

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January 31st, 2014, 12:46 am


203. Syrialover said:

OAB #166 said,

“as if my words were not sufficiently critical of the regime”

No they weren’t. They actually follow the regime’s propaganda points.

That isn’t unconscious, is it?

When you say “you seem to think simply getting rid of Assad will magically solve all of Syria’s problems”, you just delivered another pro-Assad line. Do you realise that?

Unlike you, I and most of the world believe that getting rid of the Assads is the only hope for ever having a chance of solving Syria’s current problems and building a future worth having.

You say “…what you think you know about me or my thinking”

Are you saying you think differently from the (pro-Assad press) “headline inspired” stance and opinions you’ve shown here in this forum?

If so, please demonstrate it. And maybe stop shouting – not just talking – down to me.

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January 31st, 2014, 1:38 am


204. Alan said:

Saudi Arabia has long been a backroom player in the Middle East’s nuclear game of thrones, apparently content to bankroll the ambitions of Pakistan and Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) to counter the rise of its mortal enemy, Iran.

But as the West and Iran have moved closer to a nuclear accommodation, signs are emerging that the monarchy is ready to give the world a peek at a new missile strike force of its own – which has been upgraded with Washington’s careful connivance.

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January 31st, 2014, 6:58 am


205. SANDRO LOEWE said:


Plesea notice that our problem in Syria is the criminal dictatorship regime killing the syrian people. As you perfectly know they are a mafia permitted by the world powers to reduce the syrian people ambitions.

You and your international war games are out of place and out of time in a fórum talking about Assad War on Syria Population.

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January 31st, 2014, 7:08 am


206. Hopeful said:

The same empty rhetoric that the Syrian people have been hearing for 50 years while their dignity is being robbed and wealth is being squandered.


Only the communist party of the Soviet Union and the nazi party of Germany used empty slogans like these.

By the way, I have never heard Israel call on the Syrian government to “compromise” by making Syria a free country. I did, however, hear the Israelis ask Syria to abandon its chemical weapons (in fact they even attacked facilities of weapon of mass destruction). So what exactly is this nutcase talking about when he says we won’t compromise on anything that we have not compromised to Isreal about? Is Israel asking you to hold free elections in Syria?

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January 31st, 2014, 8:42 am


207. Hopeful said:

A demonstration in London against the US, Saudis government and the FSA for trying to bring democracy in Syria


Brought to you not by regime supporters, but jihadis supporters!

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January 31st, 2014, 9:05 am


208. Alan said:

Where these blinds jihadis in London were, when Tony Blair launched an attack on Iraq? When American soldiers urinated on the corpses of Taliban? When the Israelis violate the sanctity of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque? etc…
They are like worms moving out of in order to perform the function of terrorism for the benefit of the global arrogance and the Zionist Anglo-Saxons!

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January 31st, 2014, 10:43 am


209. Hopeful said:

#200 Alan

They were always there. These jihadis are brainwashed fanatics who believe the world will be a better place if somehow an Islamic state (whatever that means) is created with an emir (whatever that means) ruling by the words of God (whatever that means). They see an opportunity in Syria now that the regime has created a big mess and chaos by deciding to use violence instead of dialogue to deal with the rebellion.

These jihadis want to create an Islamic state in Syria
The regime wants an Assadist state
The Syrians want freedom, dignity and democracy.

Both the regime and the jihadis keep wining and complaining that the US and the Saudi are helping the Syrians get rid of both diseases.

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January 31st, 2014, 12:06 pm


211. Syrialover said:

Excuse me for laughing.

Assad regime Foreign Minister Walid Muallem is declaring that the Geneva talks went nowhere because the opposition are “immature”.

Actually the world got the opposite impression about the performance of the opposition delegation.

Many observers were pleasantly surprised by their discipline, coherence and focus in the negotiations.

Meanwhile the Assad regime delegation would have stuck to their standard crude and unsophisticated tactic of “negotiation by insinuation”.

From a 2006 article I quoted earlier above (#95) :

“Syria’s (i.e. the Assads) negotiating strategy has traditionally been one of insinuation, treating politics like a game in which one should hold one’s cards as close to one’s chest as possible until one is certain of the benefit of playing them.”

Which is why the regime’s representatives will be incapable of conducting any sort of rational and constructive negotiations.

(Apologies, I gave the full source of that 2006 article “The Syrian Solution”, but omitted the link. It’s: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/62087/volker-perthes/the-syrian-solution)

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January 31st, 2014, 2:28 pm


212. Syrialover said:

Here’s a good observation:

“Syria will be to global jihad what Egypt has been for the Muslim Brotherhood.”


With the local Syrian population wishing them to hell and most of their home governments strengthening laws to guarantee them a future behind bars or deny them re-entry, all those misfit idiotic fantasist “holy warriors” are going to have to find something else to make their d***s feel bigger.

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January 31st, 2014, 3:00 pm


213. Alan said:

Angle of vision with Muasher!

Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister of Jordan, asserts that all sides—the United States, Europe, Israel, and Arab governments alike—were deeply misguided in their thinking about Arab politics and society when the turmoil of the Arab Spring erupted. He explains the causes of the unrest, tracing them back to the first Arab Awakening, and warns of the forces today that threaten the success of the Second Arab Awakening. Hope rests with the new generation and its commitment to tolerance, diversity, the peaceful rotation of power, and inclusive economic growth, Muasher maintains. He calls on the West to rethink political Islam and the Arab Israeli conflict, and he underscores the importance of efforts to strengthen education and expand traditional definitions of Arab citizenship for the long-term process of democratic transition.

“This powerful view is a manifesto for political pluralism in the Arab world—a liberating concept that has unfortunately been missing in much of the thus far disappointing ‘Arab Spring.‘ Marwan Muasher shows how badly the Arabs need a political culture that accepts diversity, tolerates dissent, and embraces different sectarian strains. If Muasher’s ideas about a pluralistic ‘third force’ can take hold, we’ll see the second Arab awakening that this book describes—and Muasher will be one of its wisest chroniclers.”

He is a seasoned statesman and scholar of the Middle East provides an astute and historically informed analysis of the Arab Spring and its origins, meaning, and implications for the future of the Middle East. Muasher delves into history and draws on his own personal experiences to produce a smart, balanced, and engaging account of the intellectual debates and political reality that shape the landscape of change.


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January 31st, 2014, 5:44 pm


214. Alan said:

The “boiling Middle East” is a fitting name for the region as the intrigues here seem to be perpetually growing. They are followed by new informational provocation, which in turn prepares a foothold for the possible upcoming deterioration of the military-political situation in the region. One example of this is the new recent claim by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper regarding the possibility that Syria has the manufacturing capabilities to produce not just chemical, but biological weapons which will, once again, give the U.S. a reason to send a military operation to Damascus, something of particular interest to Riyadh who is ready to pay any amount of their oil money to achieve their goals.

However, let’s not forget that the times are changing and the world is changing with them. New calls for military action, even those that are financed well and generously funded by the Wahhabi monarchy, will not only fail to generate an income for the puppeteers in Washington and Riyadh, but will instead hasten their political downfall.

Vladimir Odintsov – a political commentator

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January 31st, 2014, 6:02 pm


215. Syrialover said:


Either you didn’t read the material you posted in #205 or you have had a tsunami-like shift away from supporting and approving the Assad regime.

Possibly you did a quick glance and assumed it was all about criticizing the west and the Arab Spring.

On the contrary, it says:

“Hope rests with the new [Arab Spring]generation and its commitment to tolerance, diversity, the peaceful rotation of power, and inclusive economic growth, Muasher maintains.”

This describes the OPPOSITE of all the Assad regime stands for and is furiously burning Syria to stop happening!

Or maybe you have been reading and absorbing the calm wisdom and decency of HOPEFUL in his responses to you.

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January 31st, 2014, 6:18 pm


216. ghufran said:

Geneva 2 ended with mutual accusations between the government and the NC amid calls for new military actions after the army seems to be closing on Aleppo. The advances in Aleppo have prompted some nervous commentators to suggest that an attack against the army might be needed, this new/old song is in synch with fresh “concerns” about a delay in delivering chemical weapons to the UN per Kerry-Lavrov agreement and a “declaration” by US DOS spoke woman that the “military option was never taken out completely” !!
The bottom line is this: Geneva helped the opposition politically especially after Jarba was sent back to his hotel and the government delegation went on defense few times and refused to make any concessions, as many predicted. If Russia does not back off and play a “neutral” role and pressure the regime, and if the US does not understand that making this all about Assad is indeed helping Assad, more focus will be shifted to the battle field and more blood will be spilled in a war that was never intended to help the average Syrian. It is strange that advocates of democracy and freedom are more worried about elections than the party that ruled Syrian unopposed since the 1960s, I say let Syrians decide who leads them and what constitution they want but make sure there is a valid and effective UN involvement in all of this, you can not put GCC and Islamists (NC backers) and democracy in the same sentence without sounding ridiculous.

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January 31st, 2014, 6:45 pm


217. Alan said:

Firstly, you refer to the person emotional and irresponsible , and he needs to learn more
Secondly, the tsunami is not understanding the necessity of publishing , I wanted to mention to the exactly Muasher words when he says :
/ the United States, Europe, Israel, and Arab governments alike-were deeply misguided in their thinking about Arab politics and society /
/ Muasher calls on the West to rethink political Islam and the Arab Israeli conflict /
Third, followed the subsequent comment
 let’s not forget that the times are changing and the world is changing with them. New calls for military action, even those that are financed well and generously funded by the Wahhabi monarchy, will not only fail to generate an income for the puppeteers in Washington and Riyadh, but will instead hasten their political downfall. /
It is a simulation of the Western politicians! And is not a personal matter as you like to refute!
Long live Syria!
Glory for syrian arab army

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January 31st, 2014, 7:16 pm


218. Syrialover said:

ALAN, #217

Stop FAKING things and telling lies.

You have now badly discredited yourself and should be suspended from SyriaComment for posting false quotes.

The following words you expect us to believe came from Marwan Muaher, who represents the mainstream and highly respected American Carnegie Institute:

“let’s not forget that the times are changing and the world is changing with them. New calls for military action, even those that are financed well and generously funded by the Wahhabi monarchy, will not only fail to generate an income for the puppeteers in Washington and Riyadh, but will instead hasten their political downfall.”

Those words not on that video you posted in #213, or anywhere else. They come completely out of your head.

Muashar’s real comments are not anti-west or anti-Saudi, but focus on domestic issues in Arab countries.

What you have done is very serious – and could bring legal problems.

Joshua Landis will probably have to go into damage control with Marwan Muaher and apologize for this happening on his blog.

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February 1st, 2014, 12:17 am


219. Juergen said:

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February 1st, 2014, 12:22 am


220. Juergen said:

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February 1st, 2014, 12:23 am


222. Matthew Barber said:

For those interested in more translations of the @wikibaghdady leaks, the folks over at reddit continued them, here:


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February 1st, 2014, 2:28 am


223. Juergen said:

Erdogans Lasershow

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February 1st, 2014, 4:00 am


224. Alan said:


Are you know how to read? well Are you see at the end of comment No 214 ? what you have going on with the understanding?

(However, let’s not forget that the times are changing and the world is changing with them. New calls for military action, even those that are financed well and generously funded by the Wahhabi monarchy, will not only fail to generate an income for the puppeteers in Washington and Riyadh, but will instead hasten their political downfal)
Vladimir Odintsov – a political commentator SAID!!!
Sorry Mr. Vladimir Odintsov ! Americans do not want to understand your words! very Sorry Mr. Vladimir!

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February 1st, 2014, 5:35 am


226. The Syrian War: the Start of a New Phase | Red (Team) Analysis said:

[…] Kurdish forces. This would fit with Landis’ statement in his latest article Analysis: Why Syria’s Assad heads to Geneva from a position of strength (22 Jan 2014) ”rebel fighters… number well in excess of 100.000 by most […]

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February 24th, 2014, 7:15 am


227. Strategic Intelligence Assessment for Syria (2) – State of Play Part I – Pro-Assad Groups and Moderate Opposition Forces | Red (Team) Analysis said:

[…] Kurdish forces. This would fit with Landis’ statement in his latest article Analysis: Why Syria’s Assad heads to Geneva from a position of strength (22 Jan 2014) ”rebel fighters… number well in excess of 100.000 by most […]

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February 25th, 2014, 9:54 am


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