Published in partnership with The Conversation:
Listening to Syria’s State media and President Assad is usually a predictable chore. There are the daily declaration of the Army’s victories over the enemy, with the ritual “heavy losses of terrorists”. Progress is perpetual in economic development, provision of services, and assurance of food and electricity despite 4 1/2 years of conflict. The Syrian people always stand behind a just and legitimate Government.
Still, the task is useful. One can always read between the lines to see where the victories are far from complete, where progress has not been smooth, where the support of the people has been manufactured.
And then there are the moments when the mask slips and the Assad regime’s concerns and fears are revealed.
The most dramatic of those moments came on Sunday, when President Assad delivered a speech on State TV. Neither the summary by State news agency SANA nor the video could obscure — amid the denunciation of the “terrorists” and their foreign supporters — the more significant of Assad’s words.
This was a desperate President not only admitting defeats by rebel forces but stating that he could never hope to regain rule of all of Syria. He was appealing for men to join a depleted military, begging Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah to prop up his troops and economy, and asking his supposedly-devoted Syrian people not to abandon him.
Military Defeat and A Partition of Syria
The prequel to Sunday’s speech came in Assad’s previous speech, delivered on Martyrs Day in early May. Rebels had swept through Idlib Province in northwest Syria, advanced in the south along the Jordanian border, and threatened to move on the divided city of Aleppo. For the first time, the President diluted the daily headlines of victory:
When one is talking about a war as vicious as the one taking place in Syria, then this involves thousands of battles, and it’s natural for this type of battles with the numbers and conditions involved in them to have them shift between attack and defense, wins and losses, and ups and downs, but the important thing is for faith in the inevitability of victory to remain unchanging.
On Sunday, he went farther. Victory was no longer inevitable in some parts of the country.
Sometimes, in some circumstances, we are forced to give up areas to move those forces to the areas that we want to hold onto. We must define the important regions that the armed forces hold onto so it doesn’t allow the collapse of the rest of the areas.
With the reference to the “rest of the areas”, Assad was implicitly acknowledging the partition of Syria after this spring’s rebel victories and the prospect of further advances by the opposition.
Following the defeat in Idlib Province, the Syrian political and military leadership — reportedly with the participation of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Qods Forces — discussed the holding of a defense line from Latakia Province on the Mediterranean through Homs in central Syria to Damascus and the Lebanese border.
That defense line would include almost all Alawites, the group to which Assad belongs and which has been privileged by the 45 years of rule by the President and his father Hafez. It would consolidate a buffer zone for Hezbollah and maintain a link between Iran and the Lebanese organization. However, it would not include Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, or the rest of northern and eastern Syria — an area running from the Mediterranean along the Turkish border to the frontier with Iraq.
From Bad to Worse
Yet Assad was soon confessing that even this line might not be held. He acknowledged for the first time that his military faces crippling shortages of manpower: ““Everything is available [for the armed forces], but there is a shortfall in human capacity.”
In recent months, Syrian authorities have stepped up detentions at checkpoints to enforce conscription and raised the maximum age for service to well over 40. There are reports of raids on houses to seize more men for the battlefield. Earlier in July, Damascus announced the creation of new brigades, offering salaries well above the average soldier’s income and seeking commitments of at least two years. On Saturday, Assad granted amnesty to all those who have deserted or defected from the Syrian military during the four-year conflict, hoping they might return to the army.
After all these measures, Assad was still pondering the inability to maintain a force to check the rebellion. So he turned to Iran and Hezbollah. He said Tehran’s vital military and economic support was the “battle of an integrated axis”, while “the blood of our faithful brothers from the Lebanese Resistance has mixed with the blood of their brothers in the Army”.
Against the grain of rebel victories, Hezbollah has pressed an offensive eastwards from the Lebanese border, taking much of the Qalamoun region. However, Assad may be facing uncertainty over Iran. Having poured billions of dollars into Damascus, Tehran has been fending off for months the President’s request for another $6 billion. There are reports that some in the Iranian regime are considering the departure of Assad, as long as the Syrian State is protected.
No Way Out?
Still, a partition backed by Iran and Hezbollah was the only option that Assad could present to his audience. He rejected negotiations for a resolution involving the opposition: “Any political presentation that does not essentially rely on combating terrorism and ending it is practically ineffective.”
That rejection was not only a snub to the UN but also to Assad’s other major ally, Russia. For almost two years, Moscow has tried to convene discussions between the regime and a nominal opposition based inside Syria. All they have achieved so far are two sets of talks that could not even agree on an agenda for further negotiations. Now Assad was publicly rejecting Russia’s appeal for a Moscow III conference.
The President concluded with the rhetoric of defiance:
We are in a crucial stage where there are no compromises and hesitation is equal to defeatism, cowardice and treason…no relinquishment of any inch of land or rights….We will not be slaves, but we will be independent masters…masters of our countries, capabilities, and rights.
But it was far too late to replace the mask. Assad had indicated that he would cling to his office, but only by appealing to the intervention of others — and by giving up his claim to much of Syria that supposedly had “stood fast and challenged terrorism, remaining committed to [the] homeland despite all difficulties and temptations”.