How Much Longer Will Syria’s War Last?

Regardless of whether President Bashar al-Assad is overthrown, my colleagues and I believe Syria’s civil war will continue for some time. As for the timing of a hypothetical defeat of Assad, we note the following:

  • From the beginning of the conflict in Syria, Assad’s regime has maintained a much higher proportion of military forces in Damascus, the west, and the south, than in Syria’s northern or eastern provinces. This force disparity has resulted in the contraction of territory held by the regime, which has accelerated in recent months.
  • The regime’s inability to control all of Syria originates from Assad’s strategy of deploying only the most trusted military units in combat. What remains of the Syrian army is comprised mostly of committed regime supporters. If the regime loses Damascus this year, which is certainly possible, key units are unlikely to surrender to the enemy, and would maintain control of vast areas in the west and the south.
  • We are sceptical that the opposition has the capabilities to take over the entire country any time soon. Barring a dramatic increase in the inflows of offensive weapons to the insurgents, their firepower will likely remain inferior to that of the regular army. Moreover, divisions within the opposition remain deep-seated, undermining its ability to undertake coordinated military action.

We see two major potential game changers at this stage:

  • Chemical weapons: Rocket strikes hit Aleppo and Damascus last week, which appear to have involved chemical weapons. Syria’s government and opposition have blamed each other, and both sides called for an inquiry into the attacks. Under a scenario whereby the international community believes that the strikes involved chemical weapons, and such accidents become more frequent, the potential for direct Western intervention could increase.
  • Uptick in foreign military aid: Indirect support to the opposition has increased significantly in recent months, with the US saying for the first time in March that it would provide direct, non-lethal aid, while Britain and France declared that they are prepared to arm Syrian rebels even without unanimous EU support. If there is a dramatic uptick in military aid, involving lethal and non-lethal weapons, the opposition could gain the upper hand. However, it is worth remembering that the regime will continue to receive support from Russia and especially Iran.

Our medium-term core view on the Syrian conflict is as follows:

  • The regime will remain resilient, even if Damascus falls.
  • A divided opposition will be unable to effectively manage the political transition in the territories it controls.
  • The civil war will continue, with increasing involvement of Iran, Hizbullah, Turkey, Western and Arab countries, and Russia as proxy players.