Syria Analysis: Assad is Not “Winning”

Scott Lucas
By Scott Lucas July 18, 2013 08:37 Updated

Syria Analysis: Assad is Not “Winning”

Another day on Wednesday of headlines distorting and mis-understanding the state of the Syrian conflict….

The New York Times blares, “Momentum Shifts in Syria, Bolstering Assad’s Position”, even as the only analyst cited in the article, Hassan Hassan, notes, “[The regime] is not capable of winning back the country.”

In the Washington Post, the Associated Press — relying on no more than a superficial scan of events, a 29-year-old woman in Homs, and the PR lines of General Salem Idriss, the head of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army and an FSA spokesman, pronounce, “In Syria, Infighting Between al-Qaida Groups and Mainstream Rebels Undermining Revolt”.

There are elements of truth in the stories. The regime has been able to check the insurgency, taking the town of Qusayr near the Lebanese border last month and maintaining daily pressure on opposition fighters in the Damascus suburbs. With the fragmentation of the conflict, factions within the insurgency have fought each other for control of individual towns, and there have been incidents like last week’s killing by the Islamic State of Iraq of a Free Syrian Army commander.

But these are only pieces in a larger mosaic without a single pattern. Consider what also has happened in the last 48 hours:

1. Insurgents claimed the town of Nawa in Daraa Province in southern Syria.
2. The opposition — apparently with the co-ordination of up to 10 brigades, including some who have supposedly been fighting each other — is attacking a key regime point, the “Brick Factory”, in Idlib Province.
3. Insurgents say they have captured territory in Hasakah Province in eastern Syria.
4. Kurdish militia have taken over Ras al-Ain near the Turkish border, defeating insurgents including the Islamist faction Jabhat al Nusra.

After Qusayr was re-claimed by the regime in June, I wrote, “Qusayr did not resolve the Syrian conflict. It only highlighted that resolution is distant. The regime is unlikely to alter this with victory in one town.”

The line in much of the media was far different, however. With few, if any, correspondents on the ground — and often relying on the press releases of suspect sources — they first pronounced a regime offensive on Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. When that did not materialise, they projected that the Syrian military would re-claim all of Homs.

Instead, as Elizabeth O’Bagy pointed out in an analysis this week:

Consecutive large-scale offensives remain difficult for the Syrian government, and the rush to Aleppo was premature. Given the distribution of its resources and the forces required to conduct major offensives at this point, it also remains difficult for the Syrian government to conduct simultaneous large-scale offensives. Although the Syrian government has been able to maintain its current level of operations in Aleppo, it has been unable to launch a major offensive against the city while simultaneously conducting an offensive in Homs. Assad’s forces are too limited to conduct decisive operations in multiple fronts simultaneously, and once they move on from one location, they risk losing it again.

O’Bagy then makes a critical point — far from this being a standard campaign waged by an organised national military, Assad’s fight is now one of a patchwork of units:

Although the regime lacks the capacity to defeat the armed opposition decisively, it has been able to rely on air power and irregular forces to ensure control of Syria’s most populated and economically important districts while ceding less-strategically important parts of the countryside to rebel-control. However, in so doing, the nature of the regime forces has largely changed, now representing less of a national, standing army and more of a coalition of mainly militia forces with heavy weapons, including air power, at their disposal.

The same “patchwork” applies to the insurgency, so rather than having clearly-defined battle lines between two coherent military forces, we watch a curious combination of the “fluid” and the “static”. While clashes and skirmishes move through the country on a daily basis, the overall situation has not really altered.

A map claiming to show regime and opposition gains of territory in 2013:


View 2013 Offensives in a larger map

Aleppo is still split, with the insurgents rather than the regime laying siege and threatening an offensive. Despite weeks of attacks and proclamations, Assad’s men have still not re-taken all of Homs. The regime pounds the Damascus suburbs and carries out ground operations, but cannot quell the opposition there. Much of Syria’s countryside is now lost to Assad, but there is no single insurgent movement — or even two, three, or four — in control of the area from the Turkish border to the oilfields in the east.

I think that it will be economic rather than military pressure that finally dooms Assad, if not his regime, but that is another analysis for another day.

For this day, the caution is that no one is “winning” Syria. Not the elite in Damascus, putting out daily declarations of vanquishing terrorists. Not the insurgency, with some of its leaders alternatively declaring their strength and then warning of collapse if they do not get foreign aid.

And in those false, daily proclamations of military victory, we overlook those who “lose” — the tens of thousands dead, the almost two million refugees, the millions more displaced within Syria.

Scott Lucas
By Scott Lucas July 18, 2013 08:37 Updated
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7 Comments

  1. Niels July 20, 20:28

    The German military intelligence service has recently issued a reprot, which outlines the background for Assads recent advances. These are sustainable it seems if Assad wants to control completely the Southern and Western part of the country. This is in turn a complete revision of the German intelligence estimate issued a year ago.

    The reason for this turnaround is a new military strategy (not even mentioned in the article above??).

    See

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/german-intelligence-believes-assad-regime-regaining-lost-power-a-901188.html

    Many details in tsi assessment are not found in the analysis of the article, which seems much biased….

    Reply to this comment
  2. Mansur Arshama July 18, 13:15

    Thanks for this detailed analysis of the complicated situation in Syria, Scott. Perhaps comparative maps showing territorial gains (and losses) since 2012 in general would help to better understanding.
    I would like to add the point that after the recent cabinet reshuffle Assad’s position within his own camp appears to have weakened as well.

    Reply to this comment
  3. theodor2 July 18, 12:41

    I would agree with that statement, that noone is clearly on the winning path in syria. But strangely, when the situation was almost the same before and certain factors favouring the regime right now worked for the rebels (rebels having momentum, dictating the battlefield, taking over small towns, and with seemingly the regime getting ever weaker each month), this blog often and loudly proclaimed how the rebels were winning. (I’m talking about the phase since early winter last year, because before the rebels clearly WERE winning)
    It looks very much like a double standard.

    Because the rebel groups and opposition alliances are increasingly splintering and turning against each other, while regime morale seems high and they are undoubtedly stronger then half a year ago. You can say that time is now working for the regime, and the rebels have to win some huge battle gains again to restore morale and turn the war again.

    Lastly, if you simply look at larger successes in only the last three months at an as unbiased way as possible (and please remind me, if I have forgotten something).
    The rebels improved their situation in the town of daraa and took some territory in the south, including Nawa yesterday. They pressed against and took some strong defense points around idlib, but without being able to reach the town itself. Lastly, they took parts of Rashidin in western aleppo.

    On the other hand, the regime had successes in the south as well, most importangly Khirbet Ghazaleh. In homs province they took the whole Qusayr region, Talkalakh, Wadi al-Sayeh and Al-Qariatayn.
    In Hama they retook Halfaya, the largest rebelheld town there. In idlib they lifted the Wadi Al-Deif siege (is the base besieged again? We didnt hearded much, but maybe that does not count as “larger” regime success otherwise).
    And most importantly, on the main battle field around damascus, the regime halted the previous rebel offensives in the south and west, took Jdaidet al-Fadl, Otaiba, Qaysa and Ahmadiyeh and moved against the rebel strongholds of Quaboun, Barzeh and Jobar, with indications, that large parts are taken (the situation is not very clear, how MUCH was taken).

    So, is it really so strange, that people begin to see the regime as winning the war, especially if they dont have a deeper knowledge and just look at the big picture?
    All in all, “winning” might not be the right word, but the regime clearly regained the momentum in an otherwise stalled war.

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  4. RedTornadoes July 18, 10:37

    I was nodding in agreement with your piece above until the last paragraph which does not fit well with the evidence of rebel gains you cite earlier combined with your own conclusions about the regime’s lack of comparable gains. If events day after day point to one-way momentum then the party that enjoys it clearly must be winning.

    Imagine comparing any updated and current maps of Aleppo or Idlib now with those from early May and concluding “Neither side is winning!” The rebels are chipping away at Assad’s post-intervention forces exactly as they whittled down Assad’s forces earlier. That effort also involved pauses which are inherent in war but easily mistaken for stalemate.

    Assad is even more vulnerable to this chip away process now for two reasons. First he has given away all he can afford to lose (his pawns), Anything else will be far more devastating. Secondly, there exists the possibility of a massive loss of allied forces in one blow should Hezbollah withdraw. What might bring that about?

    High casualties–even when combined with economic, political and sectarian problems back in Lebanon–may not do. However combine those things with either of two reasonable possibilities and imagine the impact. The first would be the loss any major city, especially idlib or Aleppo. The second would be any humiliating defeat involving substantial Hezbollah forces (quite foreseeable in Aleppo). Nasrallah would face great pressure to make a deal: complete withdrawal provided captured forces and bodies of KIA’s are handed over. With Hezbollah gone, wouldn’t Assad’s position be far worse than in the weeks before intervention?

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  5. Pak July 18, 09:27

    Assad’s calculation from the beginning was to split Syrian society, knowing that his united minority – if it even is a minority (this article, published in March in the Middle East Policy journal, argues otherwise: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mepo.12003/abstract ) – would prevail over a disorganised, divided opposition supported by cash rich, strategy poor, and risk averse allies. More than a year of total war later, and the Syrian state – to my own surprise – is still standing. And, as you say yourself, Assad still holds onto the most important towns and cities, with little prospect of losing them.

    Re: “I think that it will be economic rather than military pressure that finally dooms Assad, if not his regime, but that is another analysis for another day.”

    This is interesting. On what do you base your assessment?

    Ultimately, a political settlement is the only viable option, but until now the opposition has stubbornly refused to participate.

    Reply to this comment
    • Scott Lucas Author July 18, 09:46

      Pak,

      Working on an analysis of the economics and hope to have something for you to consider next week.

      S.

      Reply to this comment
    • RedTornadoes July 18, 18:43

      Any political settlement that allows the Inner Circle of Thugs a temporary role in government is like volunteering for suicide. If the ruling Baathists had limited themselves to copying Hitler’s political methods and propaganda style it might be possible. Once they chose to copy his Bylorussia-style military tactics against civilians, unconditional surrender became the only option.

      If concentration inmates possesed even the simplest arms in the spring of 1945 can you imagine them agreeing to any “temporary” power sharing deal with the Nazis by that time. Same here for identical reasons. Deals that were acceptable two years ago have become unthinkable now. The signature of any rebel unit who signed on would become instantly worthless. Why would the jihadis and others radicalized sign on at all? No matter how long it takes or how much suffering is required, Assad’s ouster is the only acceptable and safe option now.

      WHY ECONOMICS MAY UNDERMINE HEZBOLLAH FASTER THAN ANYONE

      Syria’s financial reserves will soon be exhausted. The regime has destroyed virtually all productive capacity, infrastructure and agriculture. The Islamic Republic of Iran is in no position to fix its own problems while continuing to bail out Syria and–soon–Lebanon.
      And in the unlikely event a deal could be made, who would pay for rebuilding so long as any of the criminals responsible for what happen have a role in a temporary government or go unpunished?

      Analysts seem to overlook unavoidable economic consequences just coming into play in Lebanon as well and likely to accelerate exponentially to the extent Hezbollah remains in Syria or Assad remains afloat. These experts focus mainly on the political repercussions from increased sectarianism violence and mounting Hezbolah casualties. What they overlook is the potential compounding effects of economic hardships which will hit Hezbollah’s political base as well everyone else. I see three such effects.

      First, sanctions will get worse unless Hezbollah withdraws from Syria. Secondly, the tourist industry–already dying–will be as dead as Syria’s. It accounts for 20% of Lebanon’s GNP, much government, business and personal revenue and many jobs. If that decline isnt reversed now–possible only with Hezbollah’s withdrawal and Assad’s downfall–how can it ever be rebuilt? Finally the refuge burden (1.2 million people) is difficult enough especially as Lebanon’s economy begins to shrink but–unless Assad falls fast, it will be compounded greately this winter, thanks to heating shortages, a new and more radical influx of jihadis ( caused by Hezbollah’s actions and Assad’s methods), and the effects of Assad’s policy of “destroy all Sunni homes and set fire to all Sunni crops.

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