Falling back, fighting on: Assad lays out his strategy

Aron Lund writes: The meat of the speech [Bashar al-Assad gave on Syrian public television on July 26] was neither the attempt to co-opt Western-inspired “antiterrorist” discourse nor the nationalist rah-rah. Far more interesting was Assad’s lengthy discussion of the recent setbacks suffered by his army. After advancing for much of 2014, the government ran out of steam over the winter, as the economy started to sputter and rebels received additional support. This spring, Assad’s fortunes took a sharp turn for the worse.

In March, Assad’s troops were forced to surrender the provincial capital of Idlib to Islamist rebels, as well as the southern city of Bosra al-Sham. In April, the army’s last real foothold in Idlib was lost with Ariha and Jisr al-Shughur. Then the last remaining border crossing into Jordan went the same way, which slashed overland trade. In May, the extremist group known as the Islamic State took Sukhna and the strategic city of Palmyra, isolating the city of Deir Ezzor. It then began to seize or destroy parts of Syria’s energy infrastructure. In June, more moderate rebels took out an important army base in the southern Daraa Governorate, although the ensuing offensive to capture Daraa City then seemed to stall. The Islamic State jihadists have also given Assad’s forces a bad bruising in Hasakah, although the army has so far held out thanks to an alliance of convenience with local Kurdish fighters.

The government has advanced in the Syrian-Lebanese border region of Zabadani, where it is backed by the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, but the situation now looks quite grim for Assad. Much of the official Syrian Arab Army has been supplemented or replaced by militias, but even then, pro-Assad forces are spread dangerously thin on the ground. Iran, now flush with confidence after its nuclear deal, recently signed on to a $ 1 billion credit deal to aid the Syrian economy—but as things stand, Assad simply seems to be trying to hold more territory than he can defend. [Continue reading…]

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