Behind Assad's victory boasts, a recalibration of success in Syria

With the help of its allies, the Syrian Army has regained critical territory from armed rebels. But talk of victory obscures the fact that parts of the country may be irretrievable.

Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters
Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad hold a Syrian national flag with a picture of Assad, as they pass Mar Bacchus Sarkis monastery, at Maloula village, northeast of Damascus, after taking control of the village from rebel fighters, April 14, 2014.

Testing the assumptions behind the headlines

A slew of battlefield successes by the Syrian Army and its allies has prompted upbeat assessments from President Bashar al-Assad that his forces are headed for victory in the war against his rebel opponents.

Mr. Assad predicted on Monday that the major battles could be over by the end of the year, while his ally, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, claimed that the Syrian leader no longer faced the risk of being overthrown.

“This is a turning point in the crisis, both militarily in terms of the Army’s achievements in the war against terror, and socially in terms of national reconciliation processes and growing awareness of the truth behind the [attacks] targeting our country,” Assad said.

But a regime victory is unlikely to look anything like pre-war Syria. With vast tracts of northern and eastern Syria remaining in the hands of rebel groups, “winning” could simply mean retaking and holding parts of western Syria that are vital to the regime’s survival.

In the past year, the Syrian Army, supported by Shiite fighters from Hezbollah and Iraq and backed by Russia and Iran, has concentrated its efforts on ousting rebels from Damascus and imposing control on the critical corridor that connects the Syrian capital to the Mediterranean coast, the heartland of the Alawites, a Shiite splinter sect to which Assad belongs.

The regime’s hold on the area not only protects Assad in Damascus; it also safeguards the crucial arms supply route from the Syrian military bases, where weapons are stored, to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“I think the war that matters for him [Assad] is the war for western Syria, and with Iranian and Russian help he's doing quite well. For Iran, the key is to maintain and improve a logistical bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” says Frederic Hof, resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former State Department special adviser for transition in Syria.

In recent weeks, the Syrian Army and Hezbollah have swept through the Qalamoun region north of Damascus, seizing towns and villages in swift succession, effectively restoring regime control over the territory between the capital and Homs and the Lebanese border. However, it is unclear if the Syrian military will then seek to consolidate its hold on western Syria or prepare for offensives elsewhere in an attempt to decisively defeat the rebel forces.

As it is, the Syrian army is overstretched and drained by relentless combat, high casualty rates, and desertions. It was only able to retake tracts of western Syria because of help from Hezbollah and Iraqi paramilitary forces, as well as Russian and Iranian logistical support, analysts say.

If the Assad regime decides to make a push for Daraa province in the south, part of which is held by the rebels, or Idlib and Aleppo provinces in the north, dominated by rebel and foreign extremists, it could leave insufficient troops to garrison Qalamoun and the coast and prevent rebel forces from slipping back into the area.

“It may well be that the war Iran is interested in pursuing – the one that secures for itself and its Syrian vassal that part of Syria important to Iran – is the war Assad thinks may be over by the year's end,” says Mr. Hof. “I'm not sure that Assad would want to expend the time or effort to reconquer those parts of Syria whose inhabitants he largely holds in contempt.”

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