Six ways Assad has turned the tide in Syria

May 13, 2013

An undated photo provided by the Syrian state news agency shows heavy artillery firing at a military exercise. (AP Photo/SANA)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his forces "are beginning to turn the tide of the country’s war," The Washington Post's Liz Sly reported on Saturday from Beirut, explaining that Assad is "bolstered by a new strategy, the support of Iran and Russia and the assistance of fighters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement." Sly finds that "the pendulum is now swinging in favor of Assad."

How are Assad's forces doing it? Here are a few of the trends Sly found, plus one from another source:

(1) Sectarian reshuffling within the armed forces. Most Syrians are Sunni, and so are most Syrian rebels. But the Syrian regime is dominated by minority groups such as Alawites. Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group that is Syria's ally, is Shia. Putting more emphasis on minority fighters helps the regime get around its internal Sunni problem – fewer defections, more committed soldiers – although it also risks exacerbating sectarian tensions.

(2) Folding in militias. The regime has brought in 60,000 "irregular" militia fighters to supplement the armed forces, giving them both more firepower and a qualitatively different kind of firepower, better suited to challenge the rebels on their own turf.

(3) Training from Hezbollah in urban warfare. The rebels have had an advantage in city street-fighting. Now, with help from the experts, regime forces are closing that gap.

(4) Cutting off rebels from supply routes. Sly reports: "Assad loyalists are steadily squeezing [the rebels], isolating them from one another and cutting their supply routes, the rebels say. Units are running out of ammunition, and some sound increasingly desperate."

(5) Focus all energy on key "nodes." The regime appears to be bringing its overwhelming military might to bear on a handful of strategic locations: Damascus suburbs, the transit "linchpin" of Homs and coastal ports, among others. That means neglecting less-strategic areas for now, but presumably not for good.

(6) Impenetrable strongholds. The New York Times' C.J. Chivers, in a recent interview on NPR's "Fresh Air", explained that the regime has used its technological advantage to retreat into a number of strongholds around the country, from which it launches artillery, mortar and air attacks against rebels and civilians. Because the rebels don't have the firepower to breach these structures, they can't stop – or escape – the bombardment.

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Max Fisher | May 13, 2013