Syria teeters as Tehran’s military influence grows
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.”