1)  Syria and contiguity

Jacques Neria writes in Stalemate in the Syrian Civil War:

While Assad has survived so far, he has not been able to quell the rebellion, the economy is in shambles, and so are most of the areas hit by the civil war. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are either refugees in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, or are homeless in their own localities. Never in its history has Syria been so isolated, both in the Arab and international domains. Never has a Syrian regime been so widely condemned in international forums. Nevertheless, Assad has managed to survive, not only because of his power structures but also, and mainly, because of the support of Russia, China, and most especially Iran and Hizbullah.

The strategists around Assad chose deliberately to give up territory inessential to the regime’s survival, mainly in the periphery near the borders with Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan. As a result, the Kurdish minority found itself for the first time in Syria’s modern history in a vast autonomous territory bordering Turkey, geographically connected to their brethren in Iraq and Iran, with a potential of establishing the much-dreamed-of Kurdish homeland.

However, over the past two years, Assad has not lost a single large city to the rebels. Moreover, in almost all head-on confrontations with them, the loyalist army has prevailed. Assad has made use of all the weapons in his possession to ensure that result. In March 2013 there were reports of the use of some sort of chemical weapon. Assad has made use of his air force and artillery, including Scud missiles and phosphorous ammunition, but still has not engaged the bulk of his fighting forces.

The battle against the insurgents is led by his brother, Maher al-Assad, who heads the Republican Guard, seconded by a few units (all Alawites) and the dreaded Shabiha militia. So far this seems sufficient to secure the regime’s strategic goals.

In late March, the best-known quarter of Homs, Bab Amro, was recaptured by loyalist forces, thus leaving the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with territories abandoned by the regime. Even Damascus International Airport has remained in the regime’s hands despite numerous attacks by the rebels. The FSA’s attempt to sever territorial continuity between Damascus and Homs was countered by a joint military effort with Hizbullah forces, which led the main battles while relying heavily on Shiite-populated villages on both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border.

If Assad has ensured his survival by maintaining his hold on the areas in the south of Syria, he has lost the contiguity of the Shi’ite crescent.

Martin Kramer explains in The Shi’ite crescent eclipsed:

The boom in Iranian pilgrimage to Syria dates back to the 1980s. The Shiite shrines of Iraq in Najaf and Karbala became inaccessible to Iranians following the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. Emphasis shifted to the pilgrimage to Mecca, where Iranian pilgrims combined religious observance with political demonstrations. But in 1987, Saudi police clashed with demonstrating Iranians in Mecca’s streets, killing over 400, and the Saudis barred Iranians from making the pilgrimage. The Shiite shrines of Syria, which had not been major attractions for Iranian pilgrims, gained unprecedented importance in the absence of other options.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iranian planners conceived an ambitious plan for a kind of pilgrimage trail, consisting of a chain of shrines from Karbala to Damascus. Following the battle of Karbala in 687, the Umayyad caliph Yazid ordered that the head of the defeated Husayn be brought to him in Damascus. The idea was to create a route of pilgrimage following the stations of the head’s journey, anchored at the midway point by the already existing shrine to Husayn in Aleppo. To this end, Iran began to invest in the renovation and expansion of other sites in Syria.

Still, a scholar who has studied the entire range of Iranian shrine projects in Syria has written that, more than any other such effort, the Raqqa shrine “best represents the extent of Shiite triumphalism and state support in Syria.”