Not long ago, many observers thought the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was only months away. The tide has turned - and his hold on power seems increasingly secure, but why?
Narrow houses are nestled in sand-colored cliffs. Between them are churches and convents. In peaceful times Maaloula was a tourist attraction. It is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. But the tourists are long gone.
Since the beginning of Syria's civil war, others have taken an interest in the small town about 50 kilometers north of Damascus. It has changed hands again and again. Most recently, Maaloula spent several months under the control of the Syrian rebels. A few days ago the forces of Bashar Al-Assad drove the rebels from Maaloula.
The reconquest of the town was part of a large-scale offensive. Since November, the government has again taken control of most of the Qualamoun region between Damascus and Homs. "The area is extremely important for the security of Damascus," says Hisham Jaber, a former general in the Lebanese army. That's because major rebel supply routes run through the region. These are used to deliver weapons to the capital. The major road between Damascus, Homs and Syria's Mediterranean port of Latakia runs through the region.
The Qualamoun region is just one example of Assad's military advance: "In recent months, Assad's troops have had a number of military successes," says Sebastian Sons, Syria expert at the German Orient Institute. The insurgents were repulsed at many strategic locations, he said.
In the area surrounding the northern city of Aleppo, the army captured a corridor that improves the supply of its own troops significantly. In some places, especially the greater Damascus area, local truces were agreed to. Previously, Assad's troops bombarded these areas, neighborhoods or suburbs for months. At the same time, they blocked supplies of food and medicine. The regime describes these local ceasefires as part of the "national reconciliation." With this strategy, the government has managed to consolidate its power in Damascus. This freed up forces to fight in other parts of the country.
Andre Bank, Syria expert at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies, says there are several reasons for Assad's new-found strength: First, Assad managed to stop the desertions in the army. "He can keep his own fighters busy." Also, thanks to financial support from Iran, his troops receive their pay. At the same time, deserters face draconian punishment.
In addition, the ranks of the army have been strengthened by militiamen. These are both fighters from the Alawite minority, to which the president belongs, as well as the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia, Shiite militias from Iraq and members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
But Assad's strength also depends on the weakness of the Syrian opposition. "There is no united opposition, no united front against Assad any more," Sons said. The rebels are now also fighting each other. Moderate groups such as the Free Syrian Army are confronted with radical Islamic jihadists. And they too are divided among themselves. Tthere are repeated armed clashes between the Al Nusrah Front, an Al-Qaeda offshoot, and the Islamic State in Iran and the Levant (ISIS) group.
On Tuesday (15.04.2014), a leader of the Al-Nusrah Front was shot dead by ISIS fighters, along with his wife and daughter. The rebels continue to suffer from a lack of weapons - even if, as the Washington Post is reporting that US-made TOW anti-tank missiles have surfaced in oppositon arsenals.
Internationally, too, Assad's fortunes have been improving. The deal in which he promised the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons came at an opportune time, making him a more acceptable negotiating partner to the international community, Sons said. "Because of this commitment, he can continue his conventional warfare in Syria."
And even if there are again chemical weapons attacks in Syria, as was apparently the case this past weekend, the international community is likely to respond with great caution.
Assad's certainty of victory
Bashar Al-Assad is full of confidence in the face his troops' military advance. The conflict has reached a "turning point," Assad said last weekend in front of students in Damascus. The army was in the process "of winning the war on terror."
Sons says this is propaganda. Assad has indeed strengthened his position, but a military victory over the rebels is not something he could expect soon. Bank has a similar view: "A re-conquest of the whole country is highly unrealistic."
Nevertheless, Assad looks likely to remain in Syria for the time being. The rebels do not have the strength to be really dangerous for Assad and his troops. And no one is in the mood for serious negotiations toward a peaceful solution at the moment. So, at present, it all boils down to maintaining the status quo.
Bashar Al -Assad and his regime are focusing on large areas of the capital Damascus, important supply corridors to Homs in the north, to the northwest and to the Alawite-dominated areas on the Mediterranean coast. The rebels are concentrating on the south and the northern areas along the Turkish border.
And so Bashar Al-Assad can prepare his re-election in peace. In June, voters in Syria will go to the polls. The president evidently wants to run for another seven-year term. Hardly anyone doubts he will win.