Assad Bound For Re-Election As War Appears At A Stalemate

As Syria goes to the polls next week in an election that President Bashar Assad is certain to win, journalist Nick Blanford tells NPR's Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This week, law-enforcement officials identified an American who helped carry out a suicide bombing in Syria. Moner Mohammad Abusalha grew up in Florida. He traveled to Syria late last year. The news of an American jihadi only further complicates the three-year-long conflict.

Next week, Syrians will go to the polls in an election with a foregone conclusion. Bashar Al Assad will certainly remain president of Syria, but with over 160,000 people now dead, the question is what is the state of the war there? For more on that, we've brought in journalist Nick Blanford, who's a longtime journalist in the Middle-East. He writes for the Christian Science Monitor and joins us from Beirut. Nick, thanks so much for being with us.

NICK BLANFORD: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: Do this week's elections have any strategic or geopolitical consequences for the war?

BLANFORD: Well, I think the real impacts of the elections is that it's going to be another nail in the coffin of any chance of a negotiated solution to this conflict. You may recall there were a couple of random talks earlier on this year in Switzerland, which went nowhere. And the UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, actually resigned after that. So I think that the elections are essentially going to allow President Assad to say that he's been given a new boost of legitimacy - another seven year term. And it's really going to make the chances of a resumed peace track or negotiations very far removed.

SIMON: Has he consolidated his military position over the past few months?

BLANFORD: Well, he has to a certain extent. Over the last year or so, we've seen a much more focused, coordinated campaign by the Syrian army and its allies. Essentially, those allies include Lebanon Hezbollah organizations, but there are Iraqi Shi'a volunteers also fighting in Syria on behalf of the regime. And they have actually been successful. So the big question now is that - yes, the regime has been able to push the rebels back from Damascus somewhat. They've restored control of the critical roots - the coast - they've retaken Homs and making fragile gains in Aleppo in the north. And they're trying to push back rebels further south in the Golan Heights. But, the big question is whether they can actually hold the ground that they've taken. And it's not really sure - it's not certain, by any means, whether they can actually prevent rebels from sneaking back in and forming some kind of counter-insurgency campaign. It's sort of like sweeping water. When you're pushing forward - pushing water back, but then water just seeps in behind you.

SIMON: Does the Syrian army begin to get overstretched?

BLANFORD: Well, I think the Syrian army already is overstretched. At the beginning of the conflict, it was the Syrian army, especially The Fourth Armoured Division - the Republican guard - that was spearheading the war against the rebel forces, and they suffered high casualties. So, these days, the Hezbollah - Lebanon's Hezbollah - they are at the forefront of the offenses now, and the Syrian army is playing more of a support role. I mean, there are obviously still troops on the ground, but the crucial role they're playing now is in terms of delivering artillery power and airstrikes on rebel forces, with the Hezbollah guys spearheading the assaults on the ground.

SIMON: Does this suggest a long conflict lasting more years and more losses?

BLANFORD: I think so. I mean, it really does look that way. And in the (inaudible) we are seeing a hardening of the frontline positions now. The regime has been able to regain this critical ground that it needs, which is the capital, of course - and the link to the coast. The rebel forces are more dug in in the north and the northeast, and I think one of the indications that we are seeing a stabilization, if you like, of frontlines is a recent tactic that the rebels have been using of tunnel bombs. And this is where they will dig a tunnel of 100 yards, 200 yards- beneath a regime position, pack it full of explosives and detonate it. Now, this is a tactic from the trench warfare of World War I, so clearly it takes time to dig these tunnels, which kind of underlines, to a certain extent, that the frontlines, in some places, are becoming more static.

SIMON: Nick Blanford of the Christian Science Monitor in Beirut. Thanks very much.

BLANFORD: You're welcome, Scott.

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