ISIS Is Taking The Fight To Assad, But The Regime Is Far From Finished

The Assad regime is suffering some of its worst defeats of Syria’s three-year civil war.

On July 19, the regime was at the losing end of the deadliest 48-hour span of the conflict, when ISIS militants seized the Sha’ar gas fields in the Homs countryside. Days later, ISIS defeated the Syrian army’s 17th Division in a battle outside of Raqqa.

As the Beirut Daily Star recently reported, the Syrian regime and its allied paramilitaries lost an average of 100 fighters a day in the ten days after Bashar al Assad’s inauguration as president on July 17, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Whatever gains in public opinion Assad might have reaped from the ISIS blitz through Iraq and Syria this past June — a shocking event that might have left Assad’s Ba’athist government looking like an attractive alternative to a growing regional menace — evaporated this week as well. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. officials verified earlier claims that the Syrian regime had killed over 10,000 of its political opponents and had meticulously documented each death.

Assad has lost soldiers by the hundreds at the exact time he’s been proven responsible for one of the new century’s worst acts of state violence.

But that doesn’t mean the regime is going anywhere, or even that it’s losing.

ISIS has launched a new offensive in Syria — but this isn’t a development that necessarily threatens Assad’s hold on the areas critical to his government’s survival.

Reuters Map SyriaRNGS Reuters / ReutersAreas of control in Syria as of February of 2014

In recent days, ISIS has mostly swept through east and central Syria, places that were held by the Assad regime but aren’t as important as other centres of control.

“The regime wants to hold the capital, Damascus; the western coastal area, the rods linking them, and the ‘spine’ of the country stretching up through Homs and Hama to Aleppo,” Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya, told Business Insider. “As of now, it controls most of this.”

Even the loss of the gas fields outside of Homs isn’t an existential threat for Assad, who controls most of the national electrical grid’s critical infrastructure. He could simply purchase the gas from ISIS — as he reportedly has from both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, another of the conflict’s major Islamist groups.

“The fights with ISIS as of now are taking place far to the east,” says Spyer. “[The regime’s] setbacks are not life threatening, at the present time.”

The offensive also isn’t really related to events inside of Syria. Spyer says that ISIS has likely brought weapons that it pillaged from the Iraqi military to the Syrian theatre where it wants to consolidate its areas of control.

Even with its gains in Iraq, and the potential of turning its guns on other insufficiently-radical Middle Eastern governments, the extremist group is still eager to bring the fight to the Syrian regime — as it has over ten of the deadliest days of the country’s civil war.

But Assad’s rule is still secure. Even with ISIS’s latest offensive, the endgame Syria may still be far in the distance.

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