Assad forced to ‘strategic retreat’

Friday 05/06/2015
Syrian soldiers killed by al-Nusra Front fighters in the Idlib area in May.

Paris - Losing a battle is not losing the war, Syrian President Bashar Assad said recently after his troops were de­feated in Jisr al-Shughour, a key town in the northern province of Idlib.
That would have sounded reas­suring to the Syrian president’s constituency had not this battle been the latest in a series of spec­tacular setbacks suffered by the re­gime in the past few months at the hands of an overwhelmingly jihad­ist opposition.
It started with the loss of the pro­vincial capital of Idlib, followed by the fall of Jisr al-Shughour, then the ancient city of Palmyra and most recently Ariha, the last urban cen­tre of the province. All that is left in that area for the regime are a few villages on the road linking Idlib to the coastal city of Latakia, which is part of the regime’s heartland.
To many political observers, there is more to these setbacks than just hard luck on the battlefield.
“The Syrian regime is in a situa­tion of strategic retreat. It is aban­doning some positions permanent­ly,” Thomas Pierret, a specialist on Syria and a lecturer in contempo­rary Islam at the University of Edin­burgh, told The Arab Weekly.
Pierret explained that Assad’s regime is “disengaging militarily” from the Euphrates valley and from the desert of Palmyra, noting that the Idlib battle was in the making since last December.
“Yet, the regime did not send troop reinforcements or even tried to secure the road between Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour. It is instead focusing on regions deemed vital for him, such as Damascus, Homs, Hama and the Mediterranean coast.”
Those views are shared by Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for Interna­tional Peace in Washington. He told The Arab Weekly “the regime is los­ing strongholds that will be hard to regain. It hasn’t deployed much ef­fort to keep those areas.”
Bahout said the regime and its core followers from the Alawite minority sect do not seem to be­lieve anymore in a full victory and are retreating to areas dubbed “the useful Syria”.
Two main factors are behind this regime strategy.
First, the Syrian army is dispirited and worn out. Assad faces a prob­lem of an overstretched military and he is said to be fighting with hardly more than 80,000 troops in addition to a governmental militia and some other pro-Iranian Shia militias, such as Hezbollah. There are reports of the regime forcibly enrolling troops but Sunni con­scripts lack motivation.
The second factor is the decision of competing regional Sunni pow­ers, namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, to join forces. This has re­sulted in seven rebel Sunni factions rallying into a so-called Army of Conquest in which al-Qaeda-affil­iate Jabhat al-Nusra and the pow­erful Ahrar al-Sham Islamist group play prominent roles.
The Army of Conquest scored im­portant victories in Idlib province while al-Nusra Front’s main rival, the Islamic State (ISIS), seized Pal­myra. The head of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, said in an interview with Al Jazeera TV that his targets now were Damascus and Hezbollah.
With this turn of events, the question of Damascus has now arisen, said Bahout, and with it the risks of having the Syrian capital destroyed. The Army of Conquest, or even ISIS, could march on Da­mascus and the card “the Syrian re­gime might use, saying: ‘You want Damascus? You will get it in ruins.’”
As for Iran, Assad’s main ally, it is convinced, according to Bahout, that this regime cannot be saved. Also, it is not clear whether Iranian plans for whatever is left of the re­gime include Assad himself.
One thing is sure: The Syrian regime’s control of the country is shrinking by the day.
True, Assad and his men have been on the offensive the past few months but it was mainly in the region of Damascus and around Daraa and Quneitra — areas close to Jordan and Israel. That offensive aimed at pushing back groups of “moderate” rebels and strengthen­ing defences south of the Syrian capital.
As for Hezbollah, it is busy in its war against rebels in the Qalamoun area on the Lebanese border and there is not much it can do to help the regime, except occasionally sending “shock troops” for impor­tant battles.