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Why Assad is still in charge

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"Good morning," beamed the presenter on Syrian television.

"The morning of democracy," replied a jovial correspondent at a polling station, as President Bashar Assad of Syria went to the ballot box on June 3.

Winning a third seven-year term with 89 per cent of the votes cast, Assad hopes that the election, which took place only in the half of the populated territory that his forces more or less control, will give his regime fresh legitimacy. More to the point, it demonstrated that he has been holding ground militarily and may even have begun to turn back the rebel opposition’s territorial tide.

Progress has been slow, but during the past nine months or so the regime has advanced on the ground, thanks largely to Hezbullah, the Lebanese Shia militia, to assorted mercenaries and to an Iranian-trained parallel army known as the National Defense Force. A year ago the rebels were driven out of Qusayr, on the border with Lebanon. By March this year they had been evicted from Qalamoun, cutting a rebel supply line. Now they are in danger of being strangled in Aleppo, the northern city that has been divided between the regime and the rebels for the past two years.

The regime’s forces rely on foreign support, mainly from Iran and Russia, and on brutal tactics, including the use of sarin gas and barrel bombs against civilians and the banning of aid crossing into Syria from Turkey. Assad has other advantages, however. He has a clearer strategy than the opposition has. He has more consistent as well as more generous backing from his allies, and he is not hamstrung by the internal divisions from which the rebels suffer.

For the past six months or so, the rebels have been diverted from their war against Assad by the need to open a second front against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, the most extreme of the jihadist groups and the one that has inducted the biggest number of foreigners. Even Jabhat al-Nusra, which al-Qaida has blessed as its main affiliate in Syria, has been fighting against ISIS.

The presence of jihadists previously had deterred potential supporters in the West and in the Gulf from sending in more military aid, since they were unsure where it might end up. Turkey, which controls the main supply routes to the rebels, closed three crossings held by ISIS. It also blacklisted Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group.

More recently, however, the mainstream rebels’ allies – chiefly Britain, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States – have begun to expand their efforts to help those they consider worthy of support. They have been heartened by the rebels’ war on ISIS, and are coordinating efforts to help them better. An increasing number of vetted fighters in both the north and south of Syria have been trained in Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, given money to pay salaries and supplied with anti-tank weapons, albeit so far in limited quantities.

Meanwhile Gulf donors are said to have cut off funds to some of the more zealous Islamist groups, including the Islamist Front, a coalition dominated by Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist group.

As a result the rebels, especially those who have been getting renewed support, have made small advances in northern Hama province, in southern Idleb and in western Aleppo, as well as in Quneitra, close to the border with Israel. The aid that lately has been given has been too little to shift the national balance of power markedly, but it has altered the dynamic among the rebels. Moderate groups that did not exist before, such as Harakat Hazm, or which almost had been extinguished six months ago, such as the Syrian Revolutionary Front, have been revived and bolstered.

At the same time other groups, including Islamist ones, have been scrambling to portray themselves as more moderate. On May 17 a coalition of them signed a document of principles.

"The aim is to restate the original goals of the revolution, to topple the regime and to win freedom," says Muhib al-Deen al-Shami of the Islamic Front’s political office in Istanbul.

A southern front, an alignment of moderate groups from Damascus and farther south, also has drawn up a code of ethics.

From the point of view of Western governments, especially the American one, the biggest worry is that the civil war could lead to a spread of terrorism, back home as well as in Syria. Hence their keenness to see ISIS driven back by more moderate rebels. Since January ISIS has been pushed out of Idleb province and Aleppo city, forced to withdraw to the countryside east of that city and back to its stronghold in Raqqa, farther east, the only provincial capital entirely out of Assad’s hands.

For its part, ISIS has barely been battling against the regime while it sets up an intelligence force and tussles with rival insurgents for Deir ez-Zor, another eastern city. Indeed there are signs that it tacitly cooperates with Assad’s regime. Some anti-ISIS rebel groups reckon that as much as half of their forces have been diverted to this second front.

ISIS is buoyed by huge ransoms for journalists it has kidnapped. When it has clashed with government forces, its aim has been to capture weapons rather than territory.

"These are the days of criminals," a pharmacist in Deir ez-Zor says. "Assad and ISIS are winning."

The biggest question mark hangs over the intentions of the opposition’s main backers, especially America.

"A strategic approach would involve increasing support to credible, non-ideological groups," says Noah Bonsey of Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.

American policy is still undecided, however. Before giving a much-heralded foreign-policy speech on May 28, President Barack Obama is said to have wobbled yet again over assisting the rebels. According to one analysis in Washington, the aim is to give the rebels enough aid for them to act as an effective counterterrorism force against groups such as ISIS, but nothing like enough to tilt the balance definitively against Assad.

"It has to be creating an army or nothing," complains David Richards, the retired head of the British armed forces.

If the rebels continue to get only light arms, a few anti-tank weapons and, crucially, no anti-aircraft missiles, the battle lines are likely to become more entrenched, in effect partitioning the country. Separate slices of territory may be controlled by rival factions, including ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Democratic Union Party, known by its Kurdish initials, P.Y.D., which appears to be cooperating with Assad and controls slabs of the north. Jabhat al-Nusra has grown in the south partly because it can pay fighters salaries of $100 to $200 a month.

Thus a bloody mess persists, with nobody winning. Many Syrians in Damascus loathe the regime, but do not much prefer the opposition, which they consider to be tarnished and losing, or at least not winning, on the battlefield.

Above all, many Syrians now want the war to cease at almost any cost.

"At the end of the day, we understand people need to eat," says Abu Hamza, leader of a rebel group in Qaboun, a suburb of Damascus, explaining why fighters join extreme Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

That brutal truth, rather than the fake legitimacy afforded by this week’s bogus election, is one reason Assad is still in power.

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