Are the winds blowing in Assad’s favour?
Visitors to Damascus who recently met with Syrian President Bashar Assad said they found a man in a buoyant mood, conveying a feeling that his political and military prospects had definitely improved thanks to the Russian military intervention that began five months ago.
“The big boss”, as some visitors call him, implied in a recent interview that he wants to regain full control of his country. The regime currently controls the “useful territory”, meaning Damascus, the central cities of Homs and Hama, parts of Aleppo in addition to the coastal area where the regime’s stronghold lies — the cities of Latakia, Tartus and the Alawite mountains.
Clearly the winds are blowing in Assad’s favour, say insiders familiar with the Damascus political scene, arguing that the Syrian president has scored significant points.
“First of all, Bashar is no more ‘The Problem’. To the Turks, it is the Kurds who are. To the US, the problem is ISIS. As for the Jordanians, they want mainly safe borders with Syria and the resumption of trade with Lebanon,” said an insider, requesting anonymity.
As a further proof of “the big boss” acumen, a person in pro- Bashar circles underlines that “he has managed to drag Russia into the conflict, which is essentially pitting Russia against Turkey”.
In Damascus, Assad is credited with boosting the morale of his army, which has received new tanks and surface-to-air missiles.
But the picture is not as rosy as it might look from the heights of the Syrian presidential palace in Mezzeh.
According to Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor at the University of Lyon and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, it will be difficult for Assad to regain full control of the country.
“Turkey and Saudi Arabia will keep backing the rebellion. As for the Kurds, they want their autonomy and the Russians promised them they would get it,” Balanche said.
Russians need the help of Kurdish fighters to achieve one of the Kremlin’s main goals — shutting borders with Turkey to disrupt passage and supply lines for anti-Assad rebels.
Balanche sees the regime “regaining areas in the country from Aleppo to Deraa, in addition to areas of autonomy… managed by Kurds and by local war chieftains who will pledge loyalty to Damascus while being autonomous on the ground”.
The regime and its allies will focus on “surrounding and eliminating rebel pockets in Aleppo, around Damascus and Rastan as well as on shutting the Turkish border in the Idlib governorate to cut the supply lines of the rebellion”, he said.
Balanche said the target is the same at the Syrian-Jordanian border, adding that confronting the Islamic State (ISIS) would be for a later stage.
Militarily, the Russians are running the show. They define the strategy, draw the plans, make the decisions, coordinate with the various allied warring groups and provide cruise missiles and aerial support on all fronts.
Experts reckon that the Syrian army with its 120,000 troops is “tired and that the Alawite community has been drained”.
According to Balanche, it is difficult to find recruits and all the fighting is done by Iranian-backed militias whose number is “difficult to assess, though it is believed to be by the tens of thousands”.
“But the Syrian Army is united contrary to the rebels, who are divided, and that makes all the difference,” he noted. The Syrian Army, which is in a defence mode, could, however, throw in a military offensive with up to 20,000 troops if needed.
To Balanche, Assad “can rely on one-third of the population who is pro-Assad or who backs him for lack of other options. This is the case of minorities, the bourgeoisie and secular segments. Another third wants peace and if Assad can bring it to them, then they will back him. The last third is outwardly against Assad but most of those have sought refuge outside the country.
“Restoring peace will give him legitimacy in the country. He is also relying on the army and the paramilitary that are fighting for him.”
Still, peace in Syria is far-fetched. Balanche predicted violence to reach new heights in 2016 as Turkey and Saudi Arabia “are enraged against Assad”, though it is not clear what both countries could do without US backing for a military offensive inside Syria.