But such predictions proved premature, to say the least. Not only has Mr Assad managed to fend off the rebels, there are signs he may be gaining the upper hand. Just last week, regime forces recaptured Qusayr, a key town that links Damascus with its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. Fighting in that area was described as fierce and key Hezbollah units suffered heavy casualties, but for now, Assad and his partners hold the key terrain, sustaining an overland route needed to keep the regime in power. In fact, a senior Israeli official recently stated that be expects Assad to prevail. While other Israeli representatives quickly distanced themselves from that comment, a growing number of analysts (in the Middle East and Washington) privately concur with that assessment.
Why have Assad's fortunes improved so dramatically? For starters, his friends in Tehran and Beirut have gone "all in" with their support. Thousands of fighters from Hezbollah and the IRGC Qods force are fighting alongside Assad 's troops. Russia has also made a dramatic show of support, promising to send S-300 air defense missiles to Syria. Delivery of those weapons would greatly complicate Israeli or western efforts to establish no-fly zones over civilian areas or target arms transfers to Syrian or Hezbollah. The tepid U.S. response to that vow suggests that Moscow, Tehran and Hezbollah have little to fear from Washington.
Conversely, the Syrian opposition remains beset by in-fighting and factionalism. Most of the early, secular leaders have been replaced by Islamic radicals, who are now fighting among themselves. Obviously, it's hard to topple a dictator when the various anti-regime elements are battling each other. And of course, the intramural fighting lessens some of the pressure on Assad's forces, giving them more time to re-arm and regroup.
Just how much has the situation changed? Experts interviewed by The Wall Street Journal say that Assad's fall is "unlikely" in the foreseeable future, a remarkable shift from assessments offered only two months ago:
Some intelligence analysts now think Mr. Assad could hold onto power or even prevail in the conflict. That view is at odds with those of others within the intelligence community who think recent military gains by Syrian government forces and Hezbollah fighters aren't likely to alter the overall trajectory of a conflict that they still think will end with Mr. Assad's removal, the officials said.In April, the U.S.'s top intelligence official told Congress that the opposition was slowly but surely gaining the upper hand in the civil war and that Mr. Assad's capabilities were deteriorating more rapidly. U.S. officials now say the U.S. underestimated the extent to which Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Russia would double down in support of Mr. Assad, staving off—if not reversing—the regime's decline.
While some members of Congress have urged the administration to provide lethal aid to the Syrian rebels, the Obama Administration has been reluctant to pursue that course. Fox News military analyst Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer, believes the window for providing effective aid to the rebels has "passed," and believes the U.S. should remain on the sidelines--permanently.
Others disagree. Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee sent a letter to President Obama this week, urging him to provide weaponry to the rebels. But, as many observers have noted, the administration's actions in Syria have often failed to match its rhetoric. With Assad now gaining the upper hand, it seems unlikely that Washington will step in and provide more lethal support to the rebels. It is also worth noting that Damascus has a few "friends" in the administration (including Secretary of State John Kerry), making it even tougher to cobble together a military aid package for the rebels.
To be sure, Assad's survival is far from guaranteed. But he's in a much better position now than he was a couple of months ago. Now, with rebel forces in disarray--and logistical support dwindling--Bashir Assad may be able to weather the storm and eventually prevail. Indeed, if the current trajectory holds, we may look back on the past two years as another lost opportunity, much like Iran's Green Revolution of 2009. Given an opportunity to significantly damage (or even remove) an implacable foe, the west blinked, and allowed an enemy to survive. The consequences of that decision will be felt for decades to come.