Not too long ago the expert opinion was that the Assad dictatorship of Syria was doomed because of a widespread rebellion that got started in 2011 and kept spreading. But now the experts have to admit they were wrong and it appears that the Assads will win. The key to the Assad victory was discipline and effective foreign intervention by Iran and Russia. The Assads were also ruthless and single minded while the rebels were divided by religious, political and ethnic differences. The Assads have shown that they are willing to see over 200,000 Syrians killed and over ten percent of the population driven from the country in order to win.
The Assad discipline was partly habit, as the Assads had controlled the country since 1971 via ruthlessness, discipline and making the most of minority support. But the main reason for the discipline of the army was self-preservation. While many Assad supporters lost heart and fled the country many pro-Assad Syrians did not have the money or inclination to forsake their homeland.
The main support of the government was mainly religious. Some 75 percent of the population is Sunni Moslem and the Sunnis have long been the main victims of the Assad dictatorship. Most of Syria's neighbors are Sunni, and this has kept anti-Assad attitudes alive. The rebellion allowed all this hatred to express itself violently.
The Assad dictatorship was basically Shia Moslems, dominated by Alawites (12 percent of the population), along with the Druze and Christian minorities, joining together to dominate and control the Sunni majority in Syria. The Shia were always wary of the fact that Sunni conservatives openly call Shia (particularly Alawites) heretics and subject to extermination. It has been that way for centuries.
Despite the religious angle some Shia, even some Alawites, initially sided with the rebels despite trust issues. Before too long the Islamic radical rebel groups, who consider all non-Sunnis as the enemy, demonstrated a hostility and inflexibility that destroyed most minority support for the rebels and made these minorities even more staunchly pro-Assad. Thus the Islamic terrorist rebel groups have not only made the usual Assad followers more loyal, but they eventually (by late 2013) forced many other rebels into a growing civil war within the rebel movement.
Not all the minorities support the Assads. The Kurds (ten percent of the Syrian population) want more autonomy and will fight anyone who comes after them. The Palestinians (1.7 percent of the population) are considered unreliable by rebels and the Assads. A large number of Palestinians are pro-rebel but many are still loyal to the Assads, who have given the Palestinian refugees refuge for decades. Other minorities, like Turkmen (4 percent), Iraqis (4 percent), Assyrians (4 percent) and Druze (3 percent) have traditionally been well treated by the Assads, in return for loyalty. Largely because of the religious hatred of non-Moslems by Islamic terrorist rebels these minorities have been forced to stick with the Assads.
The Assads had given Syria had a large organized military force. But this forces has gone through many changes in the last three years. In 2011 Syrian security forces had 450,000 personnel (50,000 secret police, 300,000 troops and 100,000 police). Over half this force is now gone. Over 50,000 have been killed or badly wounded and over 150,000 have deserted and nearly 100,000 troops are in units that the government is reluctant to send into combat because of loyalty or morale issues. But since 2011 over 100,000 armed men have joined the Assads, mostly as local militia. There’s another 100,000 that are, in effect, garrisons in places like the east (near the coast), Damascus and towns and cities in central Syria that will fight defensively, but will not (or the government will not order them to) move elsewhere.
The army has suffered combat losses and desertions (mostly of Sunnis who were not allowed to rise too high in the officer or NCO ranks) that have not been replaced. Thus the Assads have fewer than 100,000 Syrian troops they can move around to fight the rebels. But these troops still have plenty of armored vehicles, artillery, constant ammo resupply (from Russia) and air support. Russia provides spare parts and tech assistance to keep the aircraft in the air. Russia also brokered a deal whereby Syria gives up its chemical weapons in return for NATO not destroying the Syrian air force and providing the rebels with air support (as in Libya). While Russia does not supply mercenaries like Iran, the Russians have been equally helpful in so many ways. You indeed get by with a little help from your friends.
The rebels have been helpful to the Assads by tolerating a growing number of Islamic terrorist groups on their side. At first all those Islamic terrorists, who want to carry their war to the West after they have defeated the Assads, provided the Assads with some Western support by pointing out that Syria was killing more Islamic terrorists than anyone else at the moment. That reminded the West that if they supplied with rebels with a lot of weapons, the Islamic terrorist groups would (and did) forcibly take “their share.” Seeing what happened in Libya (now an Islamic terrorist sanctuary) the West was reluctant to arm the rebels. That was seen as a wise move because by early 2013 the Islamic terrorist rebels were at war with the secular and less fanatic Islamic radical groups. That war continues.
Despite the high desertion rate in the Syrian military, the government has replaced a lot of these losses with the help of Iran. These militiamen were defending their own villages and neighborhoods, so they were motivated. Iran was the key to making this happen as they provided trainers (from the Quds Force) with experience in organizing these types of militias (especially in Iraq). Iran also provided cash to pay many of the militiamen. It’s only a part-time job (guarding their neighborhoods as well as checkpoints and military bases in the area) but the economy was a mess and a little cash meant a lot. The rebels have gotten some similar aid from foreign allies (mainly Arab oil states) and the West, but not to the extent that Russia and Iran have. Moreover, a lot of the aid for the rebels was given to (or taken by) the Islamic terrorist rebel groups.
The Syrian military has suffered heavy equipment losses. Over 2,000 armored vehicles have been destroyed, abandoned or captured. Same with over 200 aircraft and helicopters. Huge quantities of ammo and small arms have gone the same way. Some rebels have grabbed so many armored vehicles (as well as ammo for their weapons and maintenance facilities and gear) that they are asking the West for more training on how to use these tanks, self-propelled artillery and armored personnel vehicles. The losses have made new supplies of weapons and ammo from Russia and Iran so essential to the Assads. This aid kept the Syrian Air Force operational although most of the bombing attacks are purely terror, with aircraft dropping bombs in towns and neighborhoods known to be pro-rebel.
Most importantly Iran organized (and paid) thousands of Shia mercenaries to give the Syrian army some shock troops. The most important of these mercenaries were well trained and combat experienced Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Other mercenary units were recruited from Iraqi Shia and smaller numbers of Shia from elsewhere in the Arab world. These Shia mercenaries were fanatic and that countered the fanaticism of the Islamic terrorist rebels. Moreover, the Shia volunteers were more disciplined and better organized.
The Assads also used more effective, if more brutal, tactics. In effect they told pro-rebel Sunni civilians to “come with us if you want to live.” The Assads would bomb, shell and deny food and medical aid to pro-rebel civilians unless the civilians either fled their homes (and often the country) or agreed, on pain of death, to switch their allegiance to the government. Assad did not expect these Sunni civilians to fight for him, just to be neutral and quiet. As long as they did that they would not be attacked by the Assads and would have access to food and other aid.
Thus it was with a lot of foreign aid and a desperation and discipline borne out of self-preservation that enabled the Assads to go from being the designated losers to the likely winners.