Monday, May 27, 2013

Is the military balance in Syria swinging to Assad?

Battleground Syria: the frontlines of the fighting between the rebels and Assad’s forces
Graphic by Mark Oliver for The Telegraph.)

Maybe, maybe not.

From one perspective, the prospects for Assad and his regime might seem hopeless.  They have lost control of large parts of the country, and appear to have given up hope of retaking them any time soon; most of the Syrian population wants to see them gone, along with the great majority of other (Sunni) Arabs and the governments of Turkey,  most Arab countries; the US, and much of Europe; significant portions of their armed forces have deserted, and many of those that remain are too unreliable to risk using for serious combat; and so on.  But there are plausible signs that, despite all that, the regime feels its position is not just viable but actually getting stronger.

It might even be right, according to some analysts whose arguments are forcefully summed up in a recent Washington Post article by Liz Sly.  They argue that the regime has shifted its strategy toward consolidating control of those areas of the country it considers crucial, while temporarily abandoning the rest, and falling back on its core base of support in the country's Alawite minority, which provide it with reliable troops and paramilitary militias..
Pro-Assad analysts credit a major restructuring of government forces that has better equipped them to confront the insurgency. The ranks of the conventional Syrian army — weary, depleted and demoralized by defections, casualties and more than a year of continuous fighting — are being swelled by the deployment of some 60,000 militia irregulars trained at least in part by Hezbollah and Iranian advisers.

Most of the members of the National Defense Force are drawn from Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and they are regarded as more reliably loyal to Assad than the rank and file of the majority Sunni army, government supporters say.

“The army is 70 percent Sunni, and so the regime kept a lot of them in their barracks,” said Salem Zahran, an analyst and journalist who meets regularly with leaders of the Assad government. “The National Defense Force is made up of people who believe in the regime.”
(Not least because they are terrified of what will happen if it falls.)  Furthermore, the regime still has the only air force in the war and almost all the heavy weapons, which it can use to batter rebel forces and cities controlled by the opposition.  It is being heavily armed and supplied by Iran and Russia, and is getting valuable reinforcements from Lebanon's Hizbullah militia that outnumber and outweigh the smaller numbers of foreign Sunni jihadists fighting with the rebels.  As long as the US and other western counties are unwilling to match the assistance provided by Iran and Russia by arming the rebels, or to take other steps that would neutralize the regime's military advantages, such as no-fly zones, it can expect these advantages to continue.  And a number of factors make western governments reluctant to take such steps, including the presence of radical jihadist tendencies among the rebels—whose role, ironically, is enhanced by the unwillingness of western countries to arm and supply other factions in the opposition.. Meanwhile, the rebel forces remain fragmented as well as poorly armed.

Therefore, according to this analysis, the regime is beginning to feel increasingly confident that it can stay in power, wear down the rebels in the long run, and eventually emerge victorious. The "goal is first to secure the center, and then strike out to win back the rest of the country, province by province."  (By that time, the country will be in ruins, and Syrian society will be irretrievably polarized by sectarian hatreds, but such is life.)

Perhaps that confidence will turn out to be justified. For the moment, my impression is that analyses pointing to a continuation of military stalemate and social meltdown in Syria still look most persuasive.

 => One analyst making arguments along these lines, though with an emphasis on the resilience and growing confidence of the Assad regime, is the generally acute Jonathan Spyer.  He is not willing to predict victory for Assad and his regime, but he argues that, at least for the moment, they are not on the ropes:
The imminent demise of the regime of Bashar Assad has been announced on numerous occasions over the last two years of civil war in Syria. But the regime has held on. Despite some advances by rebels in the south of the country in the early months of 2013, Assad shows no signs of cracking.

Indeed, in the last few weeks, the momentum of the fighting has shifted somewhat. Regime forces have clawed back areas of recent rebel advance. The government side, evidently under Iranian tutelage, has showed an impressive and unexpected ability to adapt itself to the changing demands of the war.  [....]

Assad’s forces carried out a strategic withdrawal. In effect, the regime ceded large swathes of northern and eastern Syria to the Arab rebels and to Kurdish separatists.  Assad held on to the cities of the north; the western coastal area; the area around the capital, Damascus; and the highways between all these.

The dictator and his Iranian patrons then settled down to a process of attrition – with the twin goals of preserving their own area of rule, and rendering ungovernable the area under rebel control. This latter goal was attempted through the use of air power, artillery and latterly ballistic missiles against civilian targets.  [....]

Damascus remains a fearsome prospect for any rebel force wishing to enter it. The regime has assembled a huge array of artillery and missile systems on Mount Qassioun, a strategically vital area of high ground over the city.  The regime has also entrenched its most loyal and able fighters, including the Republican Guards, the 4th Armored Division, elements of the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Alawite paramilitaries trained by Iran in the city.  [....]  Hezbollah fighters operating on behalf of the regime in the eastern part of the country and backed by regime air power have driven the rebels back in the Qusayr area in central Homs province. In so doing, they have ensured that the vital Damascus-Homs highway remains open (though with heavy losses, according to reports).  [....]

But the regime’s rallying has taken place not only on the battlefields.  Assad has from the outset possessed a clear narrative of the conflict, according to which his regime is facing attack from an alliance of jihadi “terrorists.”  The irony of this version of events is rich, given that the dictatorship in the not-at-all-distant past made ample use of Sunni jihadi clients, employing them to destabilize neighboring Iraq  [....]

The West’s preference to refrain from directly supporting the rebellion left a vacuum, which has been largely filled by Islamist fighters and transnational jihadi groups.  So the regime’s predictions now constitute a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It is an account of events that has some resonance beyond circles naturally sympathetic to Assad. The result is that morale among supporters of the regime has improved markedly in recent weeks.

The Assad regime has benefited on every level from the support of a determined international coalition, which has stood behind the dictator since the outset of the rebellion.  Russia, Iran, its proxy Hezbollah and the Maliki government in Iraq are all playing a central role. [By contrast, the] latest indications are that the US and the West still prefer to stay directly out of it, despite the obvious crossing of notional “red lines” regarding the use of chemical weapons.

It is thus likely that the Assad regime will be around for some time to come.

This regime may be a study in vileness from a moral point of view, but Assad and his allies over the last two years have shown what can be achieved when a clear strategic goal is wedded to a willingness to use the most ruthless and murderous of means. Only a comparable level of cohesion and commitment from the rebellion and its backers is likely to prove sufficient to finally terminate Assad’s rule.

This shows no signs of emerging.

Assad, then, isn’t winning – despite the new bullishness of his supporters. But right now, he isn’t losing either.
=>  On the other hand, one could also take a number of elements of this analysis and frame them in a somewhat different way, with more emphasis on the fact that Assad "isn't winning".  This is how David Kenner puts it:
After two years of crowing that the end of Bashar al-Assad was nigh, the official and popular perceptions in the United States and Europe of the Syrian president's staying power have shifted dramatically. There's a new narrative taking hold, fueled by both media reports and assessments by Western intelligence agencies -- that the Assad regime is largely stable, and making significant gains against the rebels throughout the country.
Not so fast. While the regime has made progress on a few fronts, its actual territorial gains are so far rather minor. And in other parts of the country, it's the rebels who are still on the offensive. The Syrian war isn't turning into a regime rout -- the stalemate is only deepening,
In northern Syria, the rebels continue to make slow progress against the remaining Syrian military outposts.  [....]  
The most active front where Assad is on the offensive is Qusayr, where rebel forces are defending the western city from a joint assault by Hezbollah and Syrian military forces. The battle has dragged on for six days, despite early regime claims of a quick victory, with Hezbollah suffering significant losses in the conflict. Given the balance of forces, Qusayr will likely eventually fall to Assad. But despite being regularly described in the press as "strategic" -- much like every other contested town in Syria has been -- it is not the only opposition hub for weapons flowing from Lebanon, and its strategic benefits went largely unremarked during the more than a year it was under the control of the opposition.
Elsewhere, Assad's victories have largely consisted of preventing the rebels from making progress. [....]

Assad also has a numbers problem. As this valuable article from the Washington Post's Liz Sly  [JW: the same article by Liz Sly quoted earlier]  makes clear, his gains have largely been achieved through mobilizing some 60,000 militiamen drawn primarily from the Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs. The short-term benefits of that strategy are obvious -- but by increasing the sectarian nature of this struggle, Assad endangers his remaining Sunni support, which has been so vital to his family's dynasty since his father seized power in 1970. By relying solely on minority groups -- even with Hezbollah support -- it is unclear how the Syrian regime has the manpower to reclaim the large swathes of territory it has lost in the north and the east.
None of this is to say that the old conventional wisdom -- that Assad's fall was just around the corner -- was right all along. However, the narrative that the Syrian regime is making sweeping gains across the country is just as wrongheaded. What we are really witnessing is the beginning of a bloody conflict that, if the world does nothing to stop it, could continue for years on end.
At the moment, that looks like a safe bet.

—Jeff Weintraub