As the conflict has dragged on in Syria, growing in intensity with no sign of resolution or international intervention, the regime may seem incredibly resilient: they have been able to push the rebels out of Damascus, to protect the majority-Alawite territories, to hold Aleppo, and to keep pressure on the insurgents through artillery and airpower.
But it is costing them roughly $1 billion per month to do this, and the regime is estimated to have only $5 billion in their coffers, enough money to last until March. After that, the army will begin running out of bullets, bombs, fuel, salaries, etc. At that point, the Alawites and some other religious minorities may continue to side with Bashar because they have nowhere else to go, but many of the Sunnis who currently support the president will likely jump ship.
The rebels do not have to fear bankruptcy. Between their primary supporters (Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States), the rebels have access to virtually unlimited capital and supplies. Moreover, through unobjective and problematic reporting, Qatar’s Al-Jazeera and Western media have granted the rebels a virtual monopoly on the media, allowing them to favorably shape international public opinion.
The allies of Bashar al-Asad provide no such support—the “Axis of Resistance” is on the verge of disintegration. Hamas has endorsed the opposition and has relocated their operations to Egypt and Qatar. Iran is on the verge of economic collapse and is facing extensive inner turmoil as well as the threat of an Israeli invasion. Hezbollah is in crisis due to leader Hassan Nasrallah’s vocal and unwavering support of al-Asad, and local and regional criticism of their governance of Lebanon– with sectarian tensions spilling into that country from Syria. Russia and China can block the UN from intervening; they may even continue to sell supplies and weapons to al-Asad–but, again, he may not be able to purchase anything for much longer.
If the son of Hafez lasts long enough, his one chance to close the deal is over the winter, which will be punishing—especially due to the large displaced and refugee populations, paired with Syria’s crumbling infrastructure and the growing strain the refugees are placing on neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
Beyond the tactical challenges this sort of weather poses for guerilla fighters, the desperate situation may convince a number of Syrians that they’ve had enough of this bloodshed and instability. Perhaps, rather than being merely ambivalent towards the opposition, the civilian population may become hostile to it; the FSA is already having an increasingly difficult time finding new recruits. If the President can decisively crush the rebels militarily and/or spiritually during this period, he could exit gracefully: on his own terms, in accordance with the constitution voters ratified in February.
On the other hand, if the rebellion can survive until spring, they will be well-positioned to triumph over the regime. The warmer weather will allow an influx of new foreign fighters, and the U.S. will have a good deal more flexibility or zeal, depending on November 6, and will likely begin to arm the rebels, or even institute a no-fly zone or safe zones along with the other regional allies. In short, the rebels will get a second wind even as the regime goes bankrupt, perhaps smarting from mass defections from salary-less security forces and similarly broke key allies.
The real problem is what would come next: What happens when the fractured opposition fights among itself for control and legitimacy? Even as al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups fight secularists and religious minorities–with international players patronizing their preferred groups to ensure their own influence over the way subsequent events unfold?