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Has Bashar al-Assad lost control of Syria?
Russia is the embattled Syrian president's closest and most important ally, yet leaders in Moscow are conceding that he may be doomed
 
Free Syrian Army fighters carry weapons on a street in Aleppo's al-Amereya district on Dec. 12.
Free Syrian Army fighters carry weapons on a street in Aleppo's al-Amereya district on Dec. 12. REUTERS/Aaref Hretani

With rebels making gains across Syria, Russian leaders are saying for the first time that their ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is losing control and might lose his fight to retain power. The country's civil war has dragged on for nearly two years, costing an estimated 40,000 lives. Opposition fighters recently started seizing bigger and bigger chunks of turf in northern Syria, and gaining ground around Damascus, the capital and center of the regime's power. The rebels have also been making huge gains on the diplomatic front, as the U.S., Europe, and their allies recognized a newly formed opposition coalition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, a move that could pave the way for more aid — and weapons — for forces fighting to topple Assad.

The "bleak" appraisal from Russia — "a steadfast strategic Syrian ally — amounted to a new level of pressure on the Syrian president," say Ellen Barry and Rick Gladstone at The New York Times, as he resorts to increasingly desperate measures, including the use of Scud ballistic missiles, to keep the rebels at bay. "These comments are significant," says Steve Rosenberg at the BBC. "Russia has been a firm supporter of President Assad, providing the Syrian government with political and military support; it has also protected the Syrian leader at the U.N., by vetoing Security Council resolutions that would have increased the pressure on the Syrian president." If Russia's giving up and preparing for a change of regime, Assad could lose the one friend still keeping him in power.

The Russians aren't the only ones who think Assad is losing control, say Luke Harding, Miriam Elder, and Peter Beaumont at Britain's The Guardian. NATO's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, says Assad's regime "is approaching collapse." The bloodshed might continue, but Assad's demise is near.

On the ground the Syrian war remains an asymmetric one. The rebels are short of ammunition and have mainly light weapons: Machine guns, Kalshnikovs, and home-made rockets. The government, by contrast, has Scud missiles — fired for the first time this week at rebels in Aleppo — as well as Sukhoi jets and attack helicopters. It also has stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, dispersed at between 40 and 50 sites across the country, and a source of growing western concern.

Nonetheless, over the past three months the rebels have acquired fresh momentum. The Free Syrian Army — as well as jihadist military outfits such as Jabhat al-Nusra, outlawed by Washington this week — have overrun a succession of Syrian army bases and military schools, and is now turning the regime's weapons on them.

The Obama administration has missed its chance to steer events in Syria, too, says John Hannah at Foreign Policy. Obama tuned out a barrage of pleas to do something (short of sending ground troops) to "hasten Assad's end," and just stood there and watched. His administration couldn't "have made a worse hash of the situation if it had tried."

Short of an outright Iranian victory that saw the Assad regime's power fully restored, it's hard to imagine a more dire set of circumstances for U.S. interests. The Syrian state is well on its way to imploding. A multiplicity of increasingly well-armed militias are rushing to fill the vacuum. At the forefront of the fight are a growing number of radical Islamist groups, including some affiliated with al Qaeda. The prospect that Assad's demise will be accompanied by the use (and/or proliferation) of chemical weapons and massive communal bloodletting gets higher by the day. Libya on steroids is what we're looking at, only this time not on the distant periphery of the Middle East but in its heartland, a gaping strategic wound that is likely to threaten the stability and wellbeing of Syria's five neighbors — critical American partners all — for years to come.

There's no point fretting about what might have been, says the Boston Herald in an editorial. If the U.S. had gotten involved sooner, it "might actually have played a more timely and constructive role and not given jihadists an opportunity to sabotage the freedom-fighting effort." Now things are a bit more complicated, as some of the rebels are al Qaeda types we want nothing to do with. "But however belatedly it's still good to be on the right side of history."

 

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