In the first three years of the uprising against Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad, the opposition took control of critical territories in the country. After 2015, the balance began to change and Assad regained his power. Here's how:
It was late November 2017 when Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for siding with him in the Syrian civil war which had entered its eighth year.
“I have conveyed [to Putin], and on his behalf to the Russian people, our gratitude for Russia’s efforts to save our country,” Assad told reporters in Moscow in his second visit abroad to Russia, which is the only known country where Assad has travelled since the conflict started.
The Syrian civil war began in March 2011 after the regime violently responded to peaceful anti-government protests. Only four months later, opposition groups formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight against the Assad regime.
The regime lost vast amounts of territory to opposition groups in the following years. Assad's only supporter on the field during that time was Iran.
However, the situation shifted to Assad's favour, and now he is the most powerful he's been since 2011.
Here is how Assad survived the uprising and regained his power:
1- Concerns regarding a post-Assad withdrawal
Opposition groups formed the FSA in July 2011 and eventually started to defend themselves against the regime army. That was the beginning of the armed conflict.
The US and some European countries had supported the FSA in their fight against the Assad regime.
But the political wing of the opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), was not successful enough in electing a long-term leader who could gather all different groups under one umbrella.
According to the opposition, the intelligence of the regime assassinated some of the unifying figures of the opposition.
Mesut Hakki Casin, who is a professor and head of the International Relations Department at Istinye University, said the West was scared that his fall could create a failure like it happened in Iraq with the fall of Saddam Hussein. And Assad gave a clear message that his country would not be under control and stable after his fall.
During the eight years of war, Assad has not cut electricity and water supplies or the salaries of civil servants, as a show of strength. He kept community services going even in opposition-held areas, in a bid to show that he is still the leader of the state who can keep it functioning.
2- Iran's support
The protests that started the civil war in Syria were not sectarian based, but things turned into sectarian divisions once the armed conflict started.
Syria is a Sunni-Muslim majority country, but is ruled by an Alawite minority.
Casin said that Assad had fostered sectarian clashes in the country, which prevented different groups from coming together to fight against him, and got support from the Shia militias of Iran.
Iran has been an ally of Assad regime for decades, not because of sectarian ties, but because of ideological ties.
“The Iranians wish to preserve their strategic foothold in Syria in order to, among other things, keep the supply routes to Hezbollah open,” said Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst.
Hezbollah is Lebanon's most powerful armed and political group, which is backed by Iran.
Despite Iran’s support, it was Russia who changed the war in favour of Assad.
3- The game-changer: Russia
"There are three main factors that allowed Assad to survive so far: a well-functioning Syrian intelligence, strong security forces, and of course, Russia’s help," said Casin.
Russia first intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015, staging air strikes in support of its ally, targeting both Daesh and mainly opposition forces.
Orton said that Russia had been involved in Syria nearly as long as Iran, providing weapons and intelligence, plus political cover at the United Nations, until its direct intervention to rescue Assad in 2015.
“For Moscow, Syria is mostly a prestige operation, a way of announcing Russia’s revival as a Great Power. There are some economic incentives for Russia’s Syria policy, and some security ones, but these are all secondary,” Orton said.
After Russia started its military campaign in Syria, the territory controlled by Assad dramatically expanded.
4-Assad's move: Changing the focus of the war
Daesh and Al Nusra
Every external actor has a different agenda in Syria, which prevented them from focusing on supporting the FSA.
A couple of months after the uprising began, Assad released most Al Qaeda militants from Syrian prisons. With the weapons they captured from the areas of confrontations between the opposition and regime forces, these militants could claim territories in different parts of Syria.
That's how Al Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, and also Daesh, which was formed in Iraq by defected members of Al Qaeda came in Syria starting from 2013. Foreign fighters, who enjoyed uncontrolled borders and joined Daesh, led to the expansion of the territories.
After 2014, the US-led coalition said that their focus was to eliminate Daesh, while Russia is in Syria “stabilise the legitimate authority of Syrian President Bashar al Assad," according to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Iran, on the other hand, wants to protect the regime allowing it to increase its influence in the region.
And Turkey, a loyal supporter for the moderate opposition fighting against Assad, wants to protect its border from both Daesh and YPG threats.
The PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, a group fighting the Turkish state for more than 30 years and designated as a terror group by Turkey, the US and the European Union. The PYD was formed in 2003, and the YPG is its armed wing.
Assad's army withdrew from the northern areas, where the PYD is based, at the beginning of the civil war. That caused the PYD to immediately take control of some parts of Syria's border with Turkey, without facing any serious confrontations. Assad's move angered Turkey, which has been supporting the opposition.
But the real move which caused Turkey to militarily act in Syria was provoked by the US.
When the US decided that Daesh is the priority in Syria, it started supporting the YPG in northern Syria in its fight against Daesh.
The YPG, on the other hand, was focused on claiming more territory, in order to declare its autonomous rule.
Turkey entered Syria with its army and also with the FSA in August 2016, in order to fight Daesh and prevent the YPG from claiming more territory. In the beginning of 2018, Turkey started its second military operation in Syria, this time in Afrin against the YPG.
All the different interests of global powers and Syrian groups have been clashing with each other since the conflict began eight years ago, bringing about one outcome: even though he is dependent on other powers, Assad has not lost.
He was able to survive the conflict that has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced more than 12 million, both internally and externally.