Almost a year following the eruption of mass protests in Syria, the opposition has achieved little in the way of presenting – let alone establishing – a unified and cohesive movement.
Given the ongoing fragmentation of the armed resistance and the high regional stakes, any form of military intervention appears unlikely in the short term. This means that the conflict is likely to remain protracted.
As such, the main challenges facing the regime remain broadly the same as over the last few months. This includes a rapidly deteriorating economy, defections, the inability to maintain control over hostile territory following security operations, and an overreliance on Alawite-dominated divisions.
Having failed to break the resolve of the opposition through force, there is little to suggest that the regime will be able to reverse the economic and military attrition and ultimately hold onto power.
In the short term, a number of obstacles make military intervention an unlikely prospect. Significantly, both the gulf between proponents and opponents of stronger international action and the gap between various oppositional groups within Syria will have to be bridged before military intervention could become a realistic option.
Domestically, the establishment of the Syrian Patriotic Group (SPG) at the end of February has complicated an already complex picture. The SPG – a splinter group of the Syrian National Council (SNC) – has voiced its support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and favours a shift towards stronger armed force against the regime. Although the SNC also increasingly favours armed resistance, it has been reluctant to support international intervention and remains at odds with the FSA over this issue.
Whilst the SNC announced the establishment of a ‘central command’ to coordinate all armed anti-regime efforts in early March, the commander of the FSA, Col. Riyad-Assad, has stated that the FSA will not coordinate its efforts with the recently announced central command.
Internationally, China and Russia both continue to oppose stronger action, although Putin’s election victory could pave the way for a more pragmatic Russian stance as the long term survival of the Ba’athist regime becomes increasingly unlikely.
The likelihood of military intervention is also diminished by strategic and operational challenges. Western and regional states know full well that the stakes are far higher in Syria than in Libya with a high risk of extreme regional instability and conflict.
Furthermore, the Syrian military constitutes a far more formidable opponent in terms of its capabilities. Syria has around six times as many main battle tanks as the defeated Libyan army, whilst the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has stated that Syria has “approximately five times more sophisticated air defence systems than existed in Libya covering one fifth of the terrain”.
Torbjorn Soltvedt is a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Maplecroft