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Can Syria's Assad withstand latest battlefield setbacks?

A sudden uptick in coordination among Assad's regional rivals and signs of discord in his own ranks are raising anew the question of whether he will be forced to compromise to stay in power.

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Rebel fighters listen to one of the field commanders ahead of what they said was an offensive to take control of the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour and the surrounding areas, which are controlled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad April 20, 2015.

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

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Having clung to power for four years amid an armed uprising, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is being buffeted by a series of battlefield setbacks that could place fresh strains on its internal cohesion.

While there are no indications yet that Mr. Assad plans to drop his hard-line strategy against the armed opposition, a recent flurry of reports of suspicious deaths and disappearances point to possible tensions developing within the regime.

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If the trend of rebel successes continues – placing ever more pressure on an already exhausted and overstretched Syrian Army – those reported internal stresses might squeeze the regime into finally considering a negotiated settlement, some observers say. 

The calculation, says Robert Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington and US ambassador to Syria between 2010 and 2014, is a matter of cutting losses and holding on to a core region that supports the regime.

“The progression of events will lead over … a period of months to different elements in the regime beginning to calculate whether or not it makes sense to continue being ground down or to begin to negotiate some kind of deal in the regime’s favor while they still have some relative advantages in terms of holding some populated areas and air power,” Mr. Ford says.

In the past month, rebel factions – fueled in part by the stepped-up coordination and support of Assad’s regional rivals – have won a string of victories, seizing the ancient town of Bosra ash-Sham in southern Syria, capturing the long-sought prize of Idlib, a provincial capital in the north, and then grabbing the Nasib border post, the last functioning crossing on the Syria-Jordan border. Furthermore, regime offensives launched in the southern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra and Aleppo in the north have proved unsuccessful.

“The last few weeks have been very tough for them,” says a United Nations diplomat. “It’s difficult to tell how they will react in the coming months, but the [hard-line] mindset hasn’t changed yet.”

'Diminishing cohesion' in ruling circles

Still, the setbacks coincide with the rumors about internal feuding within Assad’s circles. Last month, Mohammed Assad, a relative of the president, was shot dead in the regime stronghold of Qardaha, reportedly over a dispute about money and influence. Last week, another Assad cousin, Monzer al-Assad, was arrested on the direct orders of the president for “illegal activities.” It remains unclear whether that alludes to common criminal practices or plotting against the regime.

Hafez Makhlouf, a cousin of the president and a key hardliner who headed the powerful General Security Directorate in Damascus, was reported last September to have been dismissed from his post, and later left the country for Belarus or Russia, where his father, Mohammed, lives. Official Syrian media said Mr. Makhlouf was subject to a routine personnel change to reflect a promotion.

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Another incident that spurred intense speculation involves Rustom Ghazale, the head of Syrian political intelligence, who was alleged to have been badly beaten in February following a heated argument with Rafik Shehadeh, the head of military intelligence. The source of the argument is said to have been differences over Iran's increasingly influential role in helping prop up the Assad regime.

Syrian media said Mr. Ghazale had been wounded in fighting with rebels in the south and was recovering in the hospital. Accounts from other sources have varied, claiming he subsequently died from his injuries or remains on life support. It was widely reported, including in media supportive of the Assad regime, that the Syrian president had dismissed both Ghazale and Mr. Shehadeh from their posts because of the fracas.

“There are more and more signs of diminishing cohesion within the ruling circles in Damascus,” says Ford.

Regional coordination

Still, there has been no shortage of predictions about Assad’s imminent fall or reports of the deaths or defections of senior regime figures that ultimately turned out to be false. The impenetrability of the Assad regime has long been a source of frustration to world leaders, diplomats, politicians, and analysts seeking to understand the thinking in Damascus. So far, Assad has defied forecasts of pundits who predicted that his regime would collapse soon after protests broke out in March 2011, instead surviving a brutal conflict that has spawned extremist Islamic groups and left some 220,000 people dead.

The regime’s recent setbacks in Idlib and the south are due in part to Assad’s regional enemies – including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan – agreeing on the need to unite rebel factions to oust Assad, according to analysts and regional diplomats.  

“Before you had four forces fighting each other – [Al Qaeda-affiliated] Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State, moderate rebels, and the regime,” says a Western diplomat based in the Middle East. “But now everyone is ganging up on the regime, and that has changed the whole dynamic. It has been extremely sudden.”

The Assad regime insists it is fighting “terrorists” and has shown little willingness to engage in serious negotiations with the opposition. The opposition demands that any negotiations must include an acceptance that Assad can no longer stay in power, a condition unacceptable to the regime.

“The regime’s negotiating position is extremely rigid,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So I think people are thinking that we have to work on changing Bashar’s calculus.”

If the rebel forces in the north and south are able to build on their recent gains and advance toward Damascus, the regime will come under tremendous pressure to find an alternative not only to its hard-line policies, but perhaps an alternative to Assad himself. The coming months will tell, but there are plenty of skeptics.

“The regime is not capable of changing.… It is so barren of initiative that it cannot come up with any creative thinking,” says a former Syrian official speaking on condition of anonymity. “They don’t want to negotiate under duress because they think it is a sign of weakness. But when they feel strong, they don’t want to negotiate because they don’t feel they need to.”