Crunch time for Assad as Iran cracks the whip
BEIRUT - It has been mooted for some time that the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, under considerable pressure from Iran, is moving towards retrenching in the Latakia coast and the Alawite mountains in the north-west, in Damascus and its environs and the central region around Homs that links the capital to the Alawite heartland.
The current Hezbollah-Syrian Army offensive to take Zabadani on the Lebanese border is part of the Qalamoun operation, which is aimed at holding a land corridor from Damascus westward into Lebanon, Hezbollah’s key supply route for arms.
Tehran’s strategic objective in Syria is to keep that corridor open to supply Hezbollah with missiles and rockets intended to block an Israeli pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities or to hammer the Jewish state with an unprecedented bombardment if that strike is carried out.
After nearly four-and-a-half years of war, severe manpower problems are also behind Assad’s current moves. These days he has to forcibly recruit fellow Alawites who have ducked the draft and who have little stomach for a fight anyway.
Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias, highly capable forces brought in by Iran, are at full stretch now, and taking losses. The Iranians are recruiting a new force known as the Maghaweer (Commandos) in northern Syria to make up for military losses.
The focus is on militias rather than recruiting for the Syrian army because of deep-rooted corruption and a growing distrust by the Iranians of the reliability of Assad’s military forces. Two new militias in the Homs-Latakia region are the Shield of the Coast and the Shield of Homs.
The militias are paying much more than what a Syrian soldier gets – $200 a month against $60 – one indication of how the windfall from unfrozen assets could be used to finance Tehran’s armed proxies around the Arab world.
But it also buttresses the indications that the Iranians are now exercising greater control over militia forces, underlining concerns that with the July 14th nuclear deal with Tehran, the US has in effect ceded Iraq and Syria to Tehran.
For some time, Iranian officials and businessmen have been reported to be buying up real estate and businesses in Syria, some with an eye on lucrative reconstruction contracts, deepening concerns in the country that the Iranians are there to stay. Assad admitted in a July 26th television appearance – his first in a year – that the regime forces suffer from a severe shortage of men through combat losses – though he did not, of course, include desertions and defections, as well as the reluctance of Syrian men to join up to fill the gaps.
He gave no indication he plans to throw in the towel. But he admitted the regime had relinquished territory because of diminished military capabilities.
“It was necessary to specify critical areas for our armed forces to hang on to,” he explained. “The problem facing the military is not related to planning, but to fatigue. It’s normal that an army gets tired, but there’s a difference between fatigue and defeat.”
That may be so, but he went on to suggest the regime may have to give up more positions so it can hold onto areas of strategic value. This is unprecedented and suggests that the problem is greater than Assad cares to admit.
The pro-Assad Syria Steps news outlet reported on July 21st that the regime has sentenced to death in absentia five leading opponents, including veteran dissident and human rights activist Michel Kilo and firebrand Hama cleric Adnan al-Arour. All are out of the country, so the announcement appears to be an empty gesture, the act of a ruler desperate to show he is still in control.
On July 22nd, Ad-Diyar, a pro-regime daily in Lebanon, reported that Assad had ordered the arrest of his chief of security, Major General Dhu al-Himma Shalish, for an $800,000 embezzlement involving a prominent Lebanese political family. Shalish is only the latest of several senior officials who have died in mysterious circumstances or been publicly disgraced.
“This shows the president’s determination to fight corruption,” Ad-Diyar asserted. Whether that is true or not, a move such as this suggests he feels the need to be seen to be cracking down on corruption within the regime – reported to be immense – at a time when he needs to rally the people behind him.
The day before the TV appearance, Assad issued an amnesty for deserters, underlining the severity of the manpower problem. In regime-speak, that is a major admission things are going badly.
It has always been difficult to discern what the Syrians will do, but the regional map is changing at a bewildering pace. Iran’s priorities are shifting, too, accelerated by the July 14th nuclear agreement with the US and global powers.
Assad’s regime, if such it still is, has recently lost control of the north-western province of Idlib and taken heavy losses in the south where the Islamic Republican Guards Corps and Hezbollah mounted an offensive, although it made no substantial gains.
These days, the regime only controls the major population centres of western Syria, including most of Damascus, Homs, Hama and the Latakia coastal region. Meet the new Syria.