A Hezbollah-led assault this week on the rebel-held town of Zabadani near Damascus appears consistent with an Iranian-supported plan for the Syrian regime to withdraw its forces to a more defendable line in the west of the country.
For months, analysts have seen a pull back to a “rump state” as inevitable given the exhaustion of the Syrian army, the critical shortage of loyalist fighters, limits on Iranian resources, and territorial gains made this year by rebel forces in the north and south of the country.
While that assessment hasn’t changed, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime so far is showing little sign of retrenching to its mooted enclave in western Syria, with hard-pressed and vulnerable Syrian troops continuing to fight isolated battles in far-flung outposts across the country.
“More than a month ago, analysts seemed unanimous in believing that Assad was in full retreat to a more defensible regime enclave running from Latakia [on the Mediterranean coast in the north west] to Damascus,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the Syrian Comment blog.
“But as with most Assad policies, this one seems to be replete with half-measures and prevarication,” he says. “Assad has clearly not given up his belief that he can retrieve lost ground and remain master of Syria, or at least most of it.”
Since March, rebel factions have seized significant tracts of territory in Idlib province in the north, including the provincial capital. Much of southwest Syria now lies in opposition hands, with rebels attempting to advance north toward Damascus. The extremist Islamic State continues to inch westward toward the vital Damascus-Homs highway, the route that connects the capital to the Mediterranean coast.
The rebel gains have been aided by the critical shortage of manpower available to Mr. Assad’s regime. After four years of fighting, the Syrian army is exhausted and the regime is increasingly having to rely on other combat forces such as the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah; Shiite fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; and the National Defense Force militia. Even Alawites, members of a Shiite sub-sect that forms the backbone of the Assad regime, are balking at joining the army.
Fighting to the last bullet
A look at a map of Syria showing the various front lines illustrates just how isolated some regime-held areas have become, explaining the reluctance of young Alawite men to fight hopeless battles far from home.
The regime outposts include Deir al-Zour and Hassakeh in eastern Syria, both of which are surrounded by territory held by rebels or ISIS. In the deep south, a tenuous finger of regime territory pokes into rebel-held areas to reach Daraa. A thicker corridor snakes north to coil around the top end of Aleppo, Syria’s second city.
“The Syrian army is not able to get back all Syria. Alawites are tired of seeing their children die in Deir al-Zour or Daraa without any hope now of victory,” says Fabrice Balanche, director of studies and research on the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the Maison de l’Orient et de la Mediterranée in France.
But there is no indication that Assad is ordering his beleaguered troops to withdraw closer to the regime areas and instead appears to expect them to fight to the last bullet.
“The regime is not adding significant new reinforcements to the exposed fronts beyond the regime's heartland, but neither is it giving these areas up voluntarily and pulling troops back,” says a European diplomat in Beirut.
Iran's interests in Syria
Up to now, Assad has pursued an “all corners” strategy in which he deploys his troops to wherever they are needed in Syria. The policy conveys the impression that Assad remains president of a unitary state and very much in control. But his military resources have become too weak to continue implementing a nationwide strategy, although that painful reality may not have sunk in yet.
“Assad and all his advisers say they are in charge and they will take back all of Syria. Actually, the opposite is true,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They are putting the government forces … on the frontline and, like the Russians at Stalingrad, telling them to fight to the death. But their ability to retake and hold all Syrian territory is gone. And everyone knows that, including the Iranians.”
Iran, which is a key backer of the Assad regime, appears to support the notion of a pullback. Iran’s strategic interests in Syria chiefly lie in the western part of the country, including the weapons supply lines to its protégé Hezbollah in Lebanon and the port cities on the Mediterranean coast where the bulk of the Alawite community lives.
“It is the Iranian strategy – a buffer state between Hezbollahland [Lebanon] and Sunni Syria,” says Mr. Balanche.
Iranian forces in Syria redeployed
Regardless of Assad’s hesitation, Iran and Hezbollah already appear to be preparing the ground for a potential pullback to an enclave in western Syria.
According to diplomatic sources, most of the Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria are now deployed in what would be the rump state. Hezbollah has pulled out of southern Syria to a new line at Kisweh, 10 miles south of Damascus. In the coastal areas, Hezbollah and the Iranians are reportedly helping set up a new militia called the Coastal Shield Brigade, which is formed of Alawites who wish to fight closer to their homes.
Last month, unconfirmed reports claimed that between 10,000 to 20,000 Iranian troops had landed in the coastal Latakia province to help defend the area.
Hezbollah’s assault on Zabadani, which began a week ago, is part of a broader campaign by the powerful Shiite party to clear rebel-held pockets of territory spanning the Lebanon-Syria border in the mountainous Qalamoun region north of Damascus. Qalamoun would form an integral part of a rump state, the geographical link between Damascus and the coastal areas.
While shortening the lines of defense may make military sense given the waning fighting forces at Assad’s disposal, it is a painful decision for the regime to make.
“Although all indications are that the regime is actually in the process of shortening the front … there are doubts whether all of the regime, including President Assad, is quite willing to fully implement this,” the European diplomat says. “For Assad and hardliners around him, the choice must be difficult. It means the loss of Syria as a whole and a demotion from being the president of Syria to be only one of several warlords in a regime-statelet in the western perimeter of the country.”