On Wednesday, Syrians will have a chance to vote for the presidency in their first-ever election with more than one candidate -- but, as President Bashar Assad coasts to a certain landslide in a sham election, another thing is evident: He isn’t just going to win at the polls. In the Syrian civil war, he is also winning militarily.
The son of dictator Hafez Assad came to power on his father's death in 2000, and is now leading his military into the fourth year of a war that has killed 160,000 people and displaced more than 5 million. He has the support of his own Alawite Muslim community, a small minority of Syrians, but is expected to trounce both of his government-sanctioned competitors, lawyers Hassan al-Nouri and Maher Najjar, who have been unable to campaign or gain any support in the war-torn country. The vote will not even be held throughout Syria; only government-controlled areas will go to the ballot.
The voting comes at a time when the opposition is losing key strongholds and the military is beginning to show signs of resurgence, winning back some of the ground it lost over the last three years. Last month, rebel forces were forced to give up the key central city of Homs in a deal that gave control to the government and allowed for the rebels’ safe evacuation. Gaining Homs was a big victory for the military, as it sits on the major supply road from the north to the south of Syria.
Since last month, regime forces have stepped up their offensives in other urban battlegrounds. The most recent string of attacks occurred over the weekend.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one of the few monitoring groups in the country, said Monday the death toll after intense fighting in cities including Aleppo, Damascus and Hama over the weekend had reached 332.
While the military has focused its offensives on urban areas, it has also maintained its grip on power on rural areas in the east. According to recent data collected by the Institute for the Study of War, the Syrian military flew more than 1,800 air sorties in the northern Hama region in the 50 days between March 30 and May 20.
The surge in activity on the regime side shows that the government has received new weapons from Russia, according to ISW, and that any rebel advances on the ground will be met by an increase in airstrikes in the coming weeks.
The majority of government airstrikes in Syria are carried out with helicopters. In some instances, the government has embedded chlorine canisters within bombs, according to a Human Rights Watch report released last month, indicating that the regime still has chemical weapons in its possession, despite a promise to destroy its stockpiles.
With the threat of increasingly deadly airstrikes, the opposition has very few means to fight back effectively, despite support from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Qatar. A PBS Frontline documentary released last week said the U.S. was also involved in training specific groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. But despite the increase in weapon shipments from the Persian Gulf states and American training, the West and its allies have been unable to remove Assad from power, in large part because the military has unchallenged control of the skies.
As the military gains momentum, Syrians in America are lobbying Washington to send more sophisticated weaponry to the rebels. Earlier this month, Ahmad al-Jarba, president of Syria's main opposition bloc, traveled to Washington and asked the U.S. government for anti-aircraft missiles. But until now, the opposition has not received MANPADS, or portable anti-aircraft missiles, from the U.S. Some reports have indicated that certain opposition groups have Chinese-made FN-6 missiles in their possession, but it is unclear how they acquired them.
At several points throughout the conflict, Western leaders said the opposition had the ability to win the war and oust Assad from power. In October 2012, President Barack Obama said: “I am confident Assad’s days are numbered.” Now, many months later, Obama is halfway through his final term, and Assad is set to take office for another seven years.