Assad forced to ‘strategic retreat’
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.