David Blair writes that: “Assad has effectively become the embattled mayor of Damascus and Aleppo, plus the policeman of the road that joins them. As the war has escalated, so his realistic objectives have been downgraded.”
Syria’s armed forces have clearly been stretched to breaking point by this crisis. On paper, the army has 220,000 soldiers, but most of the rank-and-file are Sunnis – and their loyalty to Mr Assad, whose regime is dominated by the minority Alawite sect, is not always guaranteed. Consequently, the burden of the fighting has fallen on two dependable units: the 4th division, under the de facto command of his brother, Maher, and the Republican Guard.
Together, these formations have no more than 30,000 men – less than 14 per cent of the army’s total strength – and they have borne the lion’s share of the task of combating a national insurrection. Their soldiers have fought from Deraa in the south to Idlib in the north, and they have paid a grievous price: at least 5,000 Syrian troops are believed to have been killed by the rebels in the past 16 months. By way of comparison, America has lost 1,939 men in Afghanistan during almost 11 years of war.
Mr Assad’s foes, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have directly armed those responsible for this bloodshed, while America and Britain have provided non-lethal help. In the process, the rebels have clearly become far more capable, particularly in the past few months. Western and Arab opponents of the regime will argue that they are saving lives by hastening Mr Assad’s downfall – and they could be right. But no one should be under any illusions about the suffering inflicted by this course.
Reduced to defending a handful of cities, and confident of the loyalty of only a fraction of his army, Mr Assad is no longer bidding for outright victory. A core of his security forces can still be counted on to obey orders and defeat the rebels in pitched battles, but the clock is clearly ticking. He can still buy time – perhaps measured in months – but he cannot win.