All of a sudden, things change in Syria
BEIRUT - New dynamics unfolding in the see-sawing Syria war, dovetailed by a series of “unfortunate incidents” within the regime’s inner circle, might indicate a major shake-up of the status quo and of President Bashar Assad’s hold on power.
One after the other, Assad’s apparatchiks are falling victim to internal squabbles and mysterious deaths.
The head of political security, General Rustom Ghazaleh, a long-time regime stalwart, died in April after reportedly being severely beaten by another loyalist intelligence chief, General Rafiq Shehadeh, who was later dismissed by Assad. There were reports that Ghazaleh might have opposed Iran’s growing influence in Syria.
In late 2014, Hafez Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin, was sacked as head of security in Damascus province and fled the country. Media reports point to the temporary detention of another presidential cousin, Munzer Assad.
Another member of the ruling Alawite clan, Mohammed Tawfiq Assad, a powerful cousin of the president and known as the “Chief of the Mountain”, was killed in March.
At the same time, rebels have made significant gains in the Syrian north and south. They have taken control of the military base of Wadi al-Deif in the north, after capturing the provincial capital of Idlib and the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour.
Fresh fighting is reported in the Mediterranean province of Latakia near the mountains of Jabal al-Akrad in the heartland of the ruling Alawite sect. This is close to some of the highest peaks in Syria, including Nabi Younis, which overlook Alawite villages and Qardaha, hometown of the Assad family.
US Syria expert Joshua Landis told The Arab Weekly that the strategic coastal region had “become indefensible”.
In southern Syria, the opposition halted offensives by Assad’s forces and opened new fronts in Daraa province while seizing the Nasib border crossing with Jordan, a vital trading artery and the last crossing still operating. The key town of Busra al-Sham also fell to Assad’s foes.
A rebel campaign launched against regime forces, including Hezbollah, on the Lebanon-Syria border is reported to be progressing into the mountainous Qalamoun region in the west.
The northern and southern gains were the result of better coordination between rebel factions and the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Similar dynamics were noticed in the south.
This increased harmonisation among rebel groups, which had previously battled among themselves, was attributed to a change in approach by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
The Washington Post remarked that “since inheriting the throne in January, Saudi King Salman has moved forcefully to challenge the expanding regional influence of Iran”. He has also sought to shore up the divided Syrian rebels in coordination with Doha and Ankara.
This rapprochement is a consequence of deep Arab dismay over the April 2nd framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme between Tehran and US-led powers. This seriously undercut US credibility in Arab eyes.
The rebels’ gains can also be explained by their acquisition of sophisticated weaponry, including American anti-tank TOW missiles, said Syrian opposition member Radwan Ziadeh.
Regardless of the reasons behind this near-miraculous fusion of rebel military operations, Assad’s “all corners strategy” has certainly impeded the regime. This strategy spread pro-regime forces in small pockets in distant provinces that are mostly hostile to Assad and his Iranian allies.
This policy is one last explanation for the regime’s recent defeats. These converging factors have, for the first time, left Assad’s Alawite bastion in the north gravely exposed.
Even so, this does not necessarily mean that Assad’s hold on the country might be irremediably endangered since he still controls Syria’s vital areas, namely urban centres in the West and, most essentially, Damascus.
However, if reports the rebels are going to get “Arab air cover” in the north and south are confirmed, that will significantly shift the precarious balance of power. The Syrian Observer newspaper said the US administration has listened to proposals from Turkish and Arab officials to “establish buffer zones”, or provide air cover for fighters trained and equipped in cooperation with the Pentagon.
The Assad regime is no longer positioned to secure an outright military victory in 2015. A further escalation across Syria could jeopardise its control of key terrain positions.