Belmont Club

Downfall in Syria

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.”

Whether they can stand is another story.  US News and World Report says that Turkey, perhaps sensing Assad’s doom, wants to be in at the finish. “ISTANBUL (AP) — Casting aside U.S. concerns about aiding extremist groups, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have converged on an aggressive new strategy to bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad.” They are brushing aside objections by the Obama administration. With Turkey helping the rebels in the north, and the jihadis thrusting from the east, Assad’s “all corners” position may fold like a house of cards.

The two countries — one a democracy, the other a conservative kingdom — have for years been at odds over how to deal with Assad, their common enemy. But mutual frustration with what they consider American indecision has brought the two together in a strategic alliance that is driving recent rebel gains in northern Syria, and has helped strengthen a new coalition of anti-Assad insurgents, Turkish officials say.

That is provoking concern in the United States, which does not want rebel groups, including the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front, uniting to topple Assad. The Obama administration worries that the revived rebel alliance could potentially put a more dangerous radical Islamist regime in Assad’s place, just as the U.S. is focused on bring down the Islamic State group. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, said the administration is concerned that the new alliance is helping Nusra gain territory in Syria.

Barnard’s New York Times article sketches the panic now beginning to grip communities coming to terms with the possibility that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda or Nusra will soon be among them as conquerors.  They are probably not going to be gentle.

Officials in provincial capitals like Aleppo and Dara’a are making contingency plans to preserve cash and antiquities and evacuate civilians. Foreign exchange reserves, $30 billion at the start of the war, have dwindled to $1 billion.

The already-crowded coastal provinces are straining with new arrivals from Idlib, with some saying officials have turned them away. In central Damascus, checkpoints are fewer and more sparsely staffed, as militiamen are sent to fight on the outskirts, and young men increasingly evade army service.

Even in areas populated by minority sects that fear hard-line Islamist groups like Nusra and the Islamic State — such as Druse in the south, Assyrian Christians in the north, and Ismailis in Hama — numerous residents say they are sending their sons abroad to avoid the draft, or keeping them home to protect villages.

That has accelerated the transformation of Syria’s once-centralized armed forces into something beginning to resemble that of the insurgents: a patchwork of local and foreign fighters whose interests and priorities do not always align.

Four years ago, Syria’s army had 250,000 soldiers; now, because of casualties and desertions, it has 125,000 regulars, alongside 125,000 pro-government militia members, including Iranian-trained Iraqis, Pakistanis and Afghan Hazaras, according to the senior American official in Washington.

It has developed into a no-win situation for the Obama administration. The Institute for the Study of War thinks the panic has reached Washington too. In its desperation they are casting about for a way to prop Assad up. But the change of heart at this late date only means oscillating between Scylla and Charybdis.

U.S. policymakers in April 2015 appear to be returning to the position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad represents the “least worst option in Syria” for American strategic interests. Assad is often compared to the Islamic State (ISIS) with the implication that Assad is the lesser of two evils. Senior administration officials including Secretary of State John Kerry signaled support for diplomatic negotiations with the regime in March 2015, rather than developing a committed strategy to remove Assad from power. American leaders’ ambivalence reflects the limitations of U.S. policy which attempts to treat Syria as the backdrop for a narrow counterterrorism problem rather than a comprehensive national security issue. This outlook is dangerously flawed….

The abuses of the Assad regime contribute to a deepening humanitarian crisis which threatens to overwhelm the region. The Syrian Civil War has already claimed the lives of over 220,000 Syrians and displaced nearly 11.5 million civilians. Millions of refugees have fled to neighboring countries, placing heavy burdens upon regional U.S. allies such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Assad is the instigator of and not the solution to this problem. Inaction on the part of the U.S. only drives a further wedge between the West and the Syrian populace. Many elements of the formerly-moderate opposition have aligned with jihadist groups such as JN which are perceived as effective partners in the fight against the regime. In turn, this shift towards extremism bolsters Assad with additional domestic and international legitimacy as the only apparent alternative to a radicalized Syria. Assad is not a capable or suitable anti-ISIS partner. Rather, his regime assures the survival of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria.

The Obama administration, presented by the regional parties with a choice of evils, ought to have retained a freedom of action in order to avoid the disaster on either hand. But having adopted the policy of “leading from behind” it limited itself to the choices on offer. Now it only has a choice of catastrophes. Ibrahim al-Amin, editor of the pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar, argued that the nuclear negotiations illustrated how Obama was deluding himself. He described how Obama forgot that conflict was often a zero-sum game.

the preliminary agreement reached in Lausanne was hardly a “win-win” settlement. Rather, as has been the case throughout history, there is “a victor and vanquished.” The end result of the decades-long conflict between Iran and the West, Amin added, was clear: the West has capitulated.

Amin drew on Obama’s April 2nd Rose Garden address, and noted that the president presented two choices: either this deal or war. Clearly, Amin added, war was not a realistic choice for Obama. So, in truth, he had no choice but to yield. For Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons, Obama’s talking point about the lack of alternatives to this deal revealed a fundamental truth. They understood — quite accurately — that the White House had no chance of succeeding in the negotiations if it was not willing to strike Iran, if it had to. Either force was on the table or it wasn’t. The Iranians and Hezbollah had concluded that, for Obama, this was never an actual choice.

In fact, it appeared that the White House viewed the possibility of a strike on Iran as far more unattractive than the prospect of a nuclear Iran. As such, Amin argued, there’s but one conclusion: If Washington was advertising that it cannot force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, then Obama was merely sugar-coating his surrender to Iran’s will.

That same delusion is dooming the administration to the role of an impotent bystander reduced to watching events unfold in Syria and Iraq. Instead of the “win-win” he confidently expected, Obama is now compelled to accept a “lose-lose” situation. Either the evil Assad regime prevails or the evil of al-Qaeda triumphs. Now all courses run ill. No one can say where this tragedy will end, but one possible outcome is the implosion of Syria and even Lebanon.

The ancient monastery

The ancient monastery

“Our Lady of Saidnaya Monastery or Our Lady of Seydnaya Monastery is a Greek Orthodox monastery located in Saidnaya, Syria. It is one of the most ancient Monasteries in the world and in the region of the Middle East and North Africa. It is run by a religious order of nuns. It is an important pilgrimage site for Christians and Muslims, and contains an icon of St Mary which is attributed to St Luke.”

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