The civil war was well underway by the end of 2012. At that time, a number of observers considered that an intervention aimed at removing Bashar al-Assad and his regime from power could have given way to a “democratic” option. It is however possible that this was never an option, even if, at the time, Islamist radicals and other jihadists were obviously less powerful.
Geographically speaking, the country is not, like Iraq, endowed with great quantities of oil nor does it have an economic potential comparable with Iraq’s. It should be recalled that it was France, during its mandate over Syria, that had created the “Alawite state.” More than two-thirds of the country is barren to the east of the coastal strip, in which an overwhelming majority of the population is concentrated.
In the east of Syria, held by the Islamic State (ISIL), only the banks of the Euphrates River are populated, modestly, with the towns of Al-Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor. Palmyra is isolated in the desert center of the country. Human occupation in this part of Syria is extremely limited. It is concentrated along the Aleppo-Homs-Hama-Damascus line up to Daraa, which constitutes the country’s backbone and is where most of the conflict is being played out.
Along the Turkish border, the Kurds, with their three centers, Al-Qamishli, Kobanî, and Afrin, have been solidly organized for nearly three years. Built according to a model inspired from the PKK in Turkey, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) rules over Rojava (Syrian Kurdish country). This movement has succeeded in setting up a centralized organization linking together various religious or ethnic groups under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Front, along the model once used by Marxist-Leninist movements.
A Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed at the beginning of the insurrection, as well as a Syrian National Council, half of the members of which were outside Syria (2011). These organizations, supported by the United States, would prove disappointing. Between a regime knowing that it is fighting for its survival and Islamists fueled with the desire to win, these organizations, whose motivations are lukewarm and that are being kept afloat by foreign assistance, do not have much of a fighting spirit. The forces trained by the United States to fight against the regime have evaporated over the years (in October 2015, the United States, after having spent substantial amounts of money, terminated this type of program).
The political polarization to which Bashar al-Assad largely contributed was not entirely on him. In fact very early on, as of September 2012, on the ground there were only Bashar al-Assad’s regime and a proliferation of jihadist movements gathered under the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, a coalition of seventeen Islamist organizations assisted by Turkey and Qatar, including the al-Tawhid Brigade (close to the Muslim Brotherhood), the Farouq Brigades, the Suqour al-Sham Brigade, and others. Starting in the spring of 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra (an emanation of al-Qaeda) became active, soon to be followed by Ahrar ash-Sham.
A particularly effective attack in July 2012 against the National Defense headquarters in Damascus made it seem like the insurrection had the means to topple the regime. The attack killed the minister of defense, the vice-minister, and Bashar al-Assad’s most important adviser, General Hasan Turkmani, right in the regime’s bastion. And a de facto war of attrition set in. What forces were involved in it?
The regime lined up more than two hundred thousand men, seventy-five thousand of which seemed dependable, headed by the fourth armored division made up of elite troops, five well-trained divisions and two special-forces divisions. Opposite them, the insurrectionists were credited in 2013 with forty to fifty thousand men (including Tunisians, Libyans, Saudis, Iraqis, Afghans, Chechens, and others).
The Syrian regime can count on various regional allies including Lebanese Hezbollah militia with their five to eight thousand men, who fought and won the battle of al-Qusayr (May 15 to June 5, 2013). Added to these are a number of Iranian Pasdarans (the Quds Force), including advisers and trainers in charge of training about fifty thousand militiamen (al-Jaysh al-Sha’bi), the Baghdad regime, and finally Iran. In March 2013, a crisis broke out following the use of chemical agents, which was supposed to constitute the “red line” set by Washington. There were several hundred casualties and each side was blaming the other. In addition to the regime’s responsibility, there was mention of chemical agents provided to the Islamists by Turkey in order to hasten the fall of Bashar al-Assad by prompting US intervention. Which did not happen. And Vladimir Putin astutely suggested to the Damascus regime that they dismantle their entire chemical arsenal.
In 2013, the Islamist movements, which had greater assistance, had more weapons and were estimated at about fifty thousand men. They may very well have been more at that date, but how is it possible to evaluate the number of battle-hardened combatants compared to those who had just joined the insurrection in order to take part in the Jihad?
At the beginning of 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham were established close to Idlib, which they would be able to take over the following year. These movements also took control of Al-Raqqah, which they would later have to yield to ISIL. In April 2013, the Jordanian border went under rebel control.
That year, the United States tried, in vain, to set up a “Syria Revolutionaries Front.” Polarization was obviously occurring at the extremities.