Russia’s exit from Syria highlights Assad’s limitations

Hassan Hassan writes: Five years after the uprising in Syria began, a renewed chance to steer the conflict in a less violent trajectory presents itself. Tensions have mounted between moderate rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra in northern Syria, and residents demonstrated in support of the rebels against the al-Qaeda affiliate; the Free Syrian Army has recently launched an offensive against the Islamic State in southern Syria; and Russia has announced that it will start withdrawing its main forces from the country. In the wake of positive sentiments following a semi-successful cessation of hostilities deal, the United States should capitalize on the current environment to de-escalate the conflict and shift its focus toward extremists. The Russian air campaign that began in September, while substantially improving the government’s ability to launch offensives and repulse attacks, has serious limitations and has not been the overwhelming victory that the regime would like to portray. In this context, the U.S. now has a compelling opportunity to act as counterbalance.

In a speech on July 26, 2015, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made three uncharacteristic remarks that underscored the toll that four years of armed conflict had had on the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and foreshadowed the dramatic entry of the Russian military into the theater some two months later. The first confession was that the SAA was suffering from “fatigue,” “demoralization,” and a “shortage in manpower.” Secondly, he spoke of the necessity for the army to cede control of certain areas, even if that territory appears significant to the regime’s support base. “In some cases, we have to abandon certain areas to move forces to an area we want to hold.” Finally, Assad highlighted the central role of foreign Shi’a militias in the war. He thanked Hezbollah and other foreign militias fighting on the side of the regime. He said that Hezbollah had the experience and skills needed to battle opposition fighters, and proclaimed, “A homeland is not for those who live in it or hold its passport, but those who defend it and protect it.” [Continue reading…]

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