One of the constantly repeated themes in recent articles is that the Assad regime in Syria is on the ropes. However, few news items explain why that is and fewer still say what that means. Anne Barnard and her team at the New York Times give a good account of Assad’s dire straits, implying that the survival of the regime is now seriously in doubt. “The Syrian Army has suffered a string of defeats from re-energized insurgents and is struggling to replenish its ranks as even pro-government families increasingly refuse to send sons to poorly defended units on the front lines. These developments raise newly urgent questions about the durability of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.”
Nicholas Blanford of al-Jazeera suggests that a crisis is brewing in the Qalamoun region, in the mountains to the north of Damascus, in a battlefield centered around the town and convent of Sednaya. The reason for its importance is clear from a map provided by Business Insider showing areas under the control of each belligerent. The areas in pink are what remains of Assad’s control and the rebels are trying to cross the mountains cutting Syrian territory in half at its narrowest point. If they succeed, they will be within measurable distance of destroying Assad.
The excellent Institute for the Study of War survey described Assad’s attempt to hold on to as much territory as he could, an approach termed an “army in all corners”. But manpower limitations eventually doomed the effort as attrition wore down his core forces. It is a measure of Assad’s weakness that the Qalamoun battle is being led by Hezbollah, a reinforcement sent to him by Iran.
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) continues to grapple with chronic problems of attrition and political unreliability which force Assad to rely upon a small core of trusted elite military units in addition to the IRGC-QF, Hezbollah, and other Iranian-aligned forces to conduct offensive operations. Meanwhile, the use of decentralized paramilitary units such as the National Defense Forces (NDF) in increasingly prominent combat roles has fragmented the regime’s authority over its fighting force and caused cleavages in Assad’s popular support base.
These manpower limitations have led Assad to adopt a military strategy of an ‘army in all corners’ which involves the establishment and defense of remote regime outposts throughout Syria in order to pin the outer bounds of a contiguous post-war Syrian state. Assad likely hopes that this strategy will enable him to avoid decisive defeat while still outwardly claiming to control all of Syria, eventually translating into international political legitimacy. This approach may successfully prolong the staying power of President Assad, but it protracts violence and destruction throughout the country and allows jihadist groups to flourish. The passive posture maintained by Assad’s forces effectively cedes control over large swathes of countryside to ISIS, JN, and other Islamic extremist groups.
The degree to which Hezbollah is committed to the fight was underscored by its leader Hassan Nasrallah’s statement that “if Assad falls, Hezbollah falls”, implying that should they fail, a tide of Sunni Jihadhism would crest the mountain barrier to fall upon the Shi’ite and Christian communities of the Levant. “According to the report, Nasrallah made the remarks during a meeting last Thursday with Lebanese political ally Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian who heads the Free Patriotic Movement party.”