Assad reels from rebel blows as Russia steps up aid
BEIRUT - The pressure on President Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus is growing by the day as diplomatic efforts to end the long Syrian war appear to be faltering. Sunni rebel forces have the momentum, even as Russia, Assad’s ally, steps up military aid to his loyalists.
In the north-west, the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect, the Army of Conquest, one of the main rebel alliances, has secured Idlib province and is pushing towards the strategic Sahl al-Ghab plain in neighbouring Hama province that is the gateway to Assad’s stronghold in Latakia.
The rebels face a substantial regime force with tanks and heavy artillery, but they are maintaining their advance. In the north-east, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have taken control of most of Hasakah city.
Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, and other rebels belonging to the Army of Conquest overran the regime’s last air base in Idlib at Abu Duhour on September 9th, after a two-year siege. Idlib becomes the second of Syria’s 14 provinces to be seized by rebels. Raqqa province fell to the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014.
In the south, ISIS is threatening the M5 highway, the main artery between Damascus and loyalist forces in the north-west and the strategic ports of Latakia and Tartus.
The government has never relinquished this key link, considered the “spinal column of the regime”, since the war began in March 2011. If it is lost, Damascus will be isolated, its supply lines cut. Meantime, ISIS is inching forward into Damascus from the south and is reported to be to within 5 km of the city centre.
“This is the closest ISIS has ever been to the heart of Damascus,” said Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
On September 7th, ISIS was reported to be overrunning the last oilfield still in state hands, the Jazal field which is north-west of Palmyra, seized by the jihadists in May, and close to Syria’s main gas fields.
In the west, the Syrian army, backed by a large Hezbollah force, has been battling for two months to seize the rebel-held city of Zabadani on the Lebanon border. The rebels are holding out, but Tehran needs Syria to control the corridor into Lebanon to supply Hezbollah with weapons to challenge Israel.
Russia’s military support cannot come too soon for the regime, which can be expected to retaliate for rebel advances with its scorched-earth strategy of indiscriminate bombing and starving rebel-held areas.
The Russian intervention apparently involves deploying military advisers and boosting arms shipments. Although it does not include combat troops, it still represents a significant intervention by Moscow.
This may prevent Assad’s regime, plagued by worsening manpower shortages, from collapsing. But it will not necessarily end the war and could drag Moscow into a messy conflict while provoking jihadist attacks inside Russia.
For Western powers, Assad’s regime is not the primary problem. Their enemy is ISIS. In recent days, Britain, France and Australia have all stepped up their limited air operations against ISIS or are moving in that direction.