Assad’s back is to the wall but he’s still standing
BEIRUT - The Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad is facing its worst crisis in a civil war that’s now in its fifth year.
His forces are in retreat in the north and east, largely because of a new alliance between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, who set aside their differences to unite disparate rebel forces for the first time in an offensive aimed at smashing the Damascus regime. They want Assad’s head and their new-found aggressiveness can be expected to increase.
Meantime, the minority Alawite regime is running out of fighting men. A lack of manpower’ has always been its Achilles heel and it is now so desperate it’s having to forcibly conscript even its own people and other minorities, such as the Druze who have tried to remain neutral in the conflict in which some 220,000 people, nearly 70,000 of them hard-core Alawite soldiers, have been killed and more than 1 million people wounded.
The Islamic State (ISIS), which controls a vast swath of territory across Syria and Iraq, is engaged in a new northern offensive against Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and once its commercial heart. After four years of fighting, much of the ancient city is little more than rubble, divided between Assad’s forces and the rebels.
At the same time, ISIS is advancing in the east after seizing the historic crossroads city of Palmyra on May 20th, pushing down a strategic highway that connects the key central city of Homs, where the uprising against Assad began on March 15, 2011, to Damascus.
Assad has been in tough spots before and come through. But his current woes are happening amid growing Alawite dismay at the regime’s setbacks, demonstrated by widespread draft-dodging by the sect’s young men and their forcible conscription.
Alawite domination of Syria under the Assads is clearly waning. The regime increasingly relies on key regional ally Iran and its proxies, particularly Lebanon’s Hezbollah, for its survival.
Indeed, there are growing doubts that Assad will be able to hold out for much longer unless he gives up outlying areas to concentrate what forces he has left around Damascus and the Alawite heartland in the northeast — in effect, partitioning Syria between a regime-controlled rump and regions held by Kurds and Sunni rebel forces and ending the nation state.
There have been indications this strategy is under way. The Iranian-supplied reinforcements now deploying in Syria are concentrating on these areas. There have been reports, too, of the regime forcibly removing non-Alawites from Damascus and the central city of Homs to be replaced by regime supporters.
Satellite images published by the United Nations show large urban areas that have been systematically razed, apparently to “cleanse those areas of unwanted elements, a majority of whom are Sunni”, according to analysts Fouad Hamdan and Shiar Youssef of the Naame Shaam, a group of Syrian, Lebanese and Iranian activists that focuses on exposing Iran’s growing influence in Syria. “These crimes constitute what appears to be a state policy of sectarian cleansing.”
Iran has been calling the shots in Syria for some time and there have been reports the Iranians are tiring of Assad and his cronies and might be prepared to throw him to the wolves.
Tehran appears to be increasingly concerned at rebel advances in Iraq as well as Syria, which is vital to Tehran’s expansionist strategy across the region. Iran’s primary objective is to maintain control of what has been called “useful Syria”, the capital, the Latakia coastal zone through which Assad gets Russian and Iranian weapons, and the corridor linking them.
This is because Iran needs, above all else, to maintain supply lines into Lebanon to keep Hezbollah well armed and threatening Israel. Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar, says the Iranians, aided by Hezbollah and others, are creating “a state within a state” that they will control if Assad falls — or is pushed.
It is becoming evident amid the current build-up of Iranian forces in Syria that for Tehran maintaining the supply route to Hezbollah takes precedence over simply keeping Assad in power.
Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iranian forces in Iraq and Syria, inspected regime forces in early June around the Mediterranean port of Latakia, part of the Alawite stronghold now under threat after rebels seized neighbouring Idlib province, the most important gateway to the pro-Assad heartland, in April.
He vowed, “The world will be surprised by what we and the Syrian military leadership are preparing for the coming days.”
Tehran is deploying 7,000-15,000 militiamen, overwhelmingly Iraqi and Afghani Shias, who will beef up regime defences around Damascus and mount a regime counteroffensive in Idlib, where Assad’s forces have suffered their worst setbacks.
“Whether the new deployment signals massive intervention by Iran remains to be seen,” observed Beirut analyst Michael Young. “But given the grave doubts about the staying power of Bashar Assad’s exhausted army, this may become inevitable.”