Is Assad really winning?

After two years of crowing that the end of Bashar al-Assad was nigh, the official and popular perceptions in the United States and Europe of the Syrian president's staying power have shifted dramatically. There's a new narrative taking hold, fueled by both media reports and assessments by Western intelligence agencies -- that the Assad regime is largely stable, and making significant gains against the rebels throughout the country.

Not so fast. While the regime has made progress on a few fronts, its actual territorial gains are so far rather minor. And in other parts of the country, it's the rebels who are still on the offensive. The Syrian war isn't turning into a regime rout -- the stalemate is only deepening.

In northern Syria, the rebels continue to make slow progress against the remaining Syrian military outposts. The "Youth Camp," one of the few remaining Syrian military strongholds in Idlib province, fell this week -- in this video, Syrian rebels can be seen storming the area. As the New York Times' C. J. Chivers noted recently, the Youth Camp and another Assad stronghold at a nearby brick factory mutually supported each other from rebel attack. With the loss of the Youth Camp, the brick factory will no doubt come under greater pressure. In Aleppo, meanwhile, Syrian rebels kept up their assault on the central prison, employing mortar shelling and car bombs.

The most active front where Assad is on the offensive is Qusayr, where rebel forces are defending the western city from a joint assault by Hezbollah and Syrian military forces. The battle has dragged on for six days, despite early regime claims of a quick victory, with Hezbollah suffering significant losses in the conflict. Given the balance of forces, Qusayr will likely eventually fall to Assad. But despite being regularly described in the press as "strategic" -- much like every other contested town in Syria has been -- it is not the only opposition hub for weapons flowing from Lebanon, and its strategic benefits went largely unremarked during the more than a year it was under the control of the opposition.

Elsewhere, Assad's victories have largely consisted of preventing the rebels from making progress. He appears to have gained a stronger grip over the suburbs ringing Damascus, preventing the rebels from launching an offensive on the capital, and halted rebel gains in the south by capturing the southern town of Khirbet Ghazaleh.

Assad also has a numbers problem. As this valuable article from the Washington Post's Liz Sly makes clear, his gains have largely been achieved through mobilizing some 60,000 militiamen drawn primarily from the Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs. The short-term benefits of that strategy are obvious -- but by increasing the sectarian nature of this struggle, Assad endangers his remaining Sunni support, which has been so vital to his family's dynasty since his father seized power in 1970. By relying solely on minority groups -- even with Hezbollah support -- it is unclear how the Syrian regime has the manpower to reclaim the large swathes of territory it has lost in the north and the east.

None of this is to say that the old conventional wisdom -- that Assad's fall was just around the corner -- was right all along. However, the narrative that the Syrian regime is making sweeping gains across the country is just as wrongheaded. What we are really witnessing is the beginning of a bloody conflict that, if the world does nothing to stop it, could continue for years on end.

Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images


A guide to Iran's elite eight presidential candidates

On Tuesday, Iran's Guardian Council confirmed the list of approved candidates for Iran's June 14 presidential elections -- and with it the suspicions of many that this will be a less-than-exciting election season. In whittling down 686 presidential hopefuls to just eight finalists, the Council arguably left off the two most interesting contenders: former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hand-picked successor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

So who are the 1 percent of aspirants deemed fit to rule Iran? These eight may all be symbols of the status quo and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's considerable influence in the political realm. But between them they have some pretty colorful qualifications for the job.


Saeed Jalili

Iran's current nuclear negotiator, Jalili is also considered the race's frontrunner -- not to mention Khamenei's choice for president. A former member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, he lost his right leg in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s.

In 2007, when Jalili was chosen as nuclear negotiator by Khamenei, many thought he was too inexperienced for the job. Since then, he has developed a reputation for being uncompromising. And if a recent interview with the Financial Times is any indication, it appears that trait will carry over into his presidency. "My understanding is that the more we rely on our religious and internal principles," he told FT, "the more we can resist [the demands of the international community]."

But you have to give Jalili credit for his optimistic lemons-into-lemonade attitude. "At least over the past few years when I have been carefully following the effects of sanctions, I see that they can be easily bypassed and turned into opportunities," he added. Jalili did not elaborate as to how.


Gholam Ali Haddad Adel

One of the country's self-styled conservative "principlists," Adel, along with Ali Akbar Velayati and Mohammed Baqr Qalibaf positions himself in direct opposition to the reformists who attracted many Iranians during Iran's contentious presidential election in 2009. He's also a favorite of Khamenei's as both an advisor and a relative (his daughter is married to Khamenei's son).

A lesser known fact about the prominent politician: Adel penned an influential work of Islamic "feminist" thought, The Culture of Nakedness and the Nakedness of Culture, in the 1980s. According to Pamela Karimi, a professor of art history at UMass Dartmouth, he advocates "the concealment of women’s bodies as a way to protect the larger society from the manipulation of capitalism and imperialism." He strove to "catch up with modernity and yet indigenize it through Islam."


Ali Akbar Velayati

Iran's longest-serving foreign minister (from 1980 to 1996), he is currently Khamenei's senior advisor on international affairs. Velayati is credited with helping shape Iran's tough stance toward the West, but he might be more willing to engage than it seems. In 2009, as Velayati contemplated a bid for president, an aide reached out to U.S. diplomats expressing interest in cooperating with the West and asking that some sanctions be lifted in order to help raise funds for Velayati's campaign, according to leaked cables. A doctor by training, Velayati studied pediatrics at Johns Hopkins before the 1979 revolution.

Velayati has also been implicated in authorizing the Mykonos operation in 1992, during which three Iranian Kurdish political figures and a supporter were murdered while dining in a private room of the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin.


Mohsen Rezaei

A past presidential contender who came in third in 2009, Rezaei has said he's "in it to win it" this time around. In addition to being the former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Rezaei is also the secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, which advises Khameini. In 2009, he memorably stated that he would include women in his cabinet if elected. 

Not-so-fun fact: Rezaei has the distinction of being on Interpol's wanted list for his alleged complicity in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina that killed 85 people, in the deadliest attack in the country's history. Rezaei, for his part, vigorously denies involvement in the incident (Velayati, above, is also a suspect in the attack). 


Hasan Rowhani

Rowhani is the closest of the remaining candidates to a reformist. In April, Roberto Toscano -- a former Italian ambassador to Iran --  told Al-Monitor that "if the reformists do not run their own candidate or one who is insignificant, Rowhani could get a lot of votes." He went on to note Rowhani's "impeccable CV" -- if you're really interested you can see it here -- which includes over 100 publications.

Rowhani's candidacy brings the nuclear issue to the forefront, as he was Iran's most cooperative -- if short-lived -- nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005. But although he is close to Rafsanjani, don't expect too much of a departure from Khamenei. Rowhani has also been an advisor to the supreme leader since 1989 and has close ties to the political establishment.


Mohammad Reza Aref 

Aref was Iran's vice president during President Mohammad Khatami's second term (2001 to 2005). Though he is a bit more on the reformist side than many of the other candidates, as a current member of the Expediency Council he remains an advisor to Khamenei.

Though you might not expect it from his long political career, Aref's educational background is actually in statistics. He received a Ph.D. from Stanford. If you're interested in seeing an example of the potential future president's academic work (or if you want to learn about a "mathematical model for a general single-source single-sing communication network"), check out his thesis here.


Mohammed Baqr Qalibaf 

Qalibaf succeeded Ahmadinejad as mayor of Tehran in 2005, after losing to him in that year's presidential election. And what a mayor he has been. In 2008, he came in eighth place in the World Mayor Awards (a bienniel award aiming "to raise the profile of mayors worldwide and honour those who have served their communities well"). According to the organization, he beat out other global mayoral heavy weights "for his modernisation of the capital’s infrastructure and public services." The foundation also described him as "a keen student of other metro areas around the world, actively investing in monitoring innovation in traffic management and public transport." Is there a better recommendation for president than that?

On the flip side, Qalibaf recently took heat for acknowledging his role in vigorous government crackdowns on political protests in 1999, 2003, and 2009. 


Mohammad Gharazi 

The Guardian Council's inclusion of this former minister of petroleum and parliamentarian has left many scratching their heads. Unlike his fellow nominees, Gharazi has been out of the political spotlight for over a decade and faded into relative obscurity.

One website, Iran's View, says it all with an article entitled "Everything About Mohammad Gharazi, Unknown Qualified Presidential Candidate." Word count: 240.

AFP/Getty Images