Syria teeters as Tehran’s military influence grows

Friday 31/07/2015
Harsh reality

BEIRUT - The Syrian regime of Presi­dent Bashar Assad is reeling after a series of battlefield setbacks in a nightmarish, multi-sided war that is no longer civil but bla­tantly sectarian. Assad, the lanky former London eye doctor who inherited the Arab world’s first dy­nastic republic 15 years ago, admit­ted the crisis in a recent television address, his first public speech in a year.
The Syrian Army, weakened by combat losses but probably more so by desertions, defections and draft-dodging, is suffering a critical man­power shortage, Assad conceded in his July 26th speech. This means he is increasingly reliant on Iran to avoid total defeat.
But even though the minority- Alawite regime he took over from his late father in 2000 (though it seems not the elder Assad’s serpen­tine skills) is in deep trouble, and may have to relinquish more terri­tory, he declared: “We are not col­lapsing.
“We are steadfast, and we will achieve victory. Defeat does not exist in the dictionary of the Syrian Arab Army.”
But the harsh reality is that the re­gime currently only controls about one-third of Syria and there are growing indications that, pressured by its increasingly domineering ally Iran, it is now circling the wagons around those defensible sectors that are deemed vital to the regime’s sur­vival.
This envisaged rump state em­braces Damascus and its environs, the Alawite heartland in the north-west that includes the coastal region around the Mediterranean port of Latakia, the regime’s only mari­time link and essential for arms supplies from Russia, and the cen­tral sector in Homs province that links them.
The hand of Iran is seen in this strategy, giving weight to a growing perception that the Iranians, whose support on the ground with money, supplies and fighting men drawn from Hezbollah and other Shia prox­ies has been critical in keeping Assad in power through four-and-a-half years of carnage, are increasingly taking charge of military operations from his enfeebled army.
This essentially leaves Assad little more than an Alawite warlord in a land ravaged by warlords beholden to one outside power or another.
Neighbouring Iraq is going the same way. Both countries, once Arab powerhouses held together by Machiavellian dictators, are disin­tegrating in the sectarian cataclysm gripping the Middle East.
The emerging plan for the Da­mascus regime to hold onto only what has become known as “useful Syria” is seen as generated by Teh­ran’s strategic interests, primarily to maintain a land corridor to Hezbol­lah in Lebanon to the west through which it can be supplied with arms against Israel.
“If the Assad regime falls, Ira­nian arms shipments to Hezbollah are likely to cease, and Hezbollah would no longer be the deterrence against Israel that is now,” said Syr­ian analysts Fouad Hamdan and Shi­ar Youssef, founders of the activist group Naame Shaam.
“It is no longer accurate to de­scribe the war in Syria as a conflict between Syrian rebels … and As­sad’s regime forces ‘supported’ by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and Iraqi militias,” they wrote in a recent Middle East In­stitute analysis entitled “Iran as an Occupying Force in Syria”.
“Most major battles … are now being directed and fought by the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbol­lah, along with other non-Syrian Shia militias, with Assad forces in a supportive or secondary role.”