A war that has seesawed wildly over the past year and is now threatening to draw in other regional players is likely to pivot unpredictably many more times before it is over. Events such as the bombings that killed at least 40 people in a Turkish border town Saturday, Israel’s airstrikes against Damascus last weekend and decisions by outside powers to arm the rebels are among the many variables that could tilt the balance again.
But analysts say there is little doubt that the pendulum is now swinging in favor of Assad, potentially putting him in a strong position to set terms if the negotiations with the opposition that the Obama administration and Russia last week agreed to sponsor eventually take place.
“If things continue as they are, the government will certainly be the party that has the major advantage” in any talks, said Charles Lister of the London-based IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. “If we press pause on where we are today, it is clear the insurgency does not pose an existential threat to the regime.”
Pro-Assad analysts credit a major restructuring of government forces that has better equipped them to confront the insurgency. The ranks of the conventional Syrian army — weary, depleted and demoralized by defections, casualties and more than a year of continuous fighting — are being swelled by the deployment of some 60,000 militia irregulars trained at least in part by Hezbollah and Iranian advisers.
Most of the members of the National Defense Force are drawn from Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and they are regarded as more reliably loyal to Assad than the rank and file of the majority Sunni army, government supporters say.
“The army is 70 percent Sunni, and so the regime kept a lot of them in their barracks,” said Salem Zahran, an analyst and journalist who meets regularly with leaders of the Assad government. “The National Defense Force is made up of people who believe in the regime.”
Moreover, the militias have received training in the guerrilla tactics and urban warfare at which Hezbollah excels, and which are more suited to confronting the ad hoc rebel force, said retired Lebanese Army Gen. Elias Hanna, who now teaches at the American University of Beirut.
“They are fighting urban warfare with urban warfare instead of going at it asymmetrically,” he said.
Meanwhile, the regime can still call on its conventional superiority to project its power into areas where the rebels hold sway on the ground, including air strikes, ballistic missiles and artillery. And unlike the rebel force, which has received only sporadic supplies of relatively low-caliber weaponry from its reluctant Western and Arab allies, Assad’s military can count on steady supplies of arms and ammunition from Iran and Russia, Hanna said.
A new strategy for Assad
In the hotly contested eastern suburbs of Damascus, one of the areas where Assad’s rejuvenated forces are regaining lost ground, rebel fighters with the still-disorganized Free Syrian Army say the merging of the militias with the conventional army has bolstered the regime’s manpower by as much as a third. Though the rebels retain most of the strongholds they have controlled for much of the past year, Assad loyalists are steadily squeezing them, isolating them from one another and cutting their supply routes, the rebels say. Units are running out of ammunition, and some sound increasingly desperate.
“We do not know fear here, but we are worried about our future,” said Zainaldin al-Shami of the Free Syrian Army’s First Brigade, speaking by Skype from the Damascus suburb of Barzeh. “We are facing all kinds of weapons and we can’t defend ourselves. We need massive support.”
Perhaps most significantly, the government has recalibrated its approach to the war raging nationwide. Instead of stretching its forces thin by trying to fight on multiple fronts across the country, the regime is focusing on what it calls a few key “nodes” considered essential to sustaining its hold on power, according to Syrians and Lebanese familiar with the strategy.
They include the Damascus suburbs, along with an arc of territory stretching from the coastal ports of Latakia and Tartus in the northwest to the capital — the urban backbone of the country, embracing its most important supply routes.
The new focus does not signal an intention to let go of the vast areas of the north and east that have fallen almost entirely under rebel control, and where the rebels are still making progress against scattered outposts of regime resistance, Zahran stressed. Rather, he said, the goal is first to secure the center, and then strike out to win back the rest of the country, province by province.
Central to the success of the strategy is the province of Homs, where the rebels first took up arms and where the influx of Hezbollah fighters has been most pronounced. Controlling Homs, which borders five of Syria’s provinces and three countries, will provide a launch pad for efforts to retake the north and east while denying the rebels access to cross-border weapons supplies from Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. “Homs is the linchpin,” Zahran said.
Hezbollah disputes assessments by Western diplomats in Beirut that several thousand of its members are fighting in Syria. Zahran says a distinction should be drawn between a Hezbollah-trained force of 2,000 Lebanese Shiites recruited from Lebanese border villages that is fighting in Homs and the other Hezbollah cadres dispatched on a smaller scale to locations elsewhere in Syria, who number in the hundreds.
Hezbollah no longer attempts to hide its involvement in the Syrian conflict, however. In comments quoted by the pro-Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar last week, Assad acknowledged his debt to the movement, expressing “very high confidence, great satisfaction and appreciation toward Hezbollah” and promising to “give them everything.”
Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah has portrayed the movement’s involvement in the Syrian war as a struggle for the survival of Shiites regionwide against a rising tide of Sunni extremism. Israel’s airstrikes have further helped the movement justify its participation, said Mohammed Obeid, a Lebanese political analyst with close ties to Hezbollah, by enabling its leadership to also cast the fight in Syria as an extension of its war against Israel.
“After the Israeli strikes, Hezbollah can say openly that it is fighting Israel in Syria,” he said. “These strikes served Hezbollah and strengthened its logic.”
The Hezbollah force in Homs has played a crucial role in turning around months of stalemate in favor of the government, he said. Hezbollah fighters have secured control of a string of villages along the ill-defined border with Lebanon and are now laying siege to the rebel stronghold of Quseir, severing the rebels’ weapons supply route from Lebanon.
And the Hezbollah fighters are proving a tougher foe than the troops of the Syrian army, said Hussam Muhabeldeen, an activist contacted by Skype who is trapped in besieged Quseir.
“The fighters tell us that battling Hezbollah is very difficult compared to the army,” he said. “Hezbollah are more professional than the army”
Hezbollah has contributed far fewer fighters to Damascus than Homs, but it has acknowledged participating in efforts to defend two Shiite shrines in two southern suburban neighborhoods, Obeid said, alongside a growing number of Iraqi Shiite volunteers.
Sectarian conflict intensifies
Inevitably, the heightened role played by Shiite militias is compounding the already acute sectarian dimension of the war. Human rights activists fear that a reported massacre this month of dozens and perhaps hundreds of Sunni villagers by Alawite militias in a rural area of Tartus could presage a policy of sectarian cleansing in mixed areas of the country that are the focus of the new strategy.
The growing influence of Sunni extremists in the rebel-controlled north is in turn fueling Shiite concerns. A conflict that has already claimed the lives of 70,000 people could yet last years, and further embroil Syria’s neighbors, analysts say.
It remains hard to see how the government could ever reassert its authority over the far flung provinces of Aleppo, Raqqah and Deir al-Zour, which are now almost entirely in rebel hands, said Jeffrey White, a defense analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs.
But it is also becoming clear that the regime has managed to take advantage of the Obama administration’s hesitancy to help the rebels rewrite the narrative of the war in ways that make the prospects of an outright rebel victory remote, said Amr al-Azm, a history professor at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, who is Syrian and supports the opposition.
“They’ve addressed their manpower problems, they’ve shrunk the areas they’re trying to focus on and they’ve reduced their supply lines,” said Azm. “All they need now is to hold the coast, Homs and Damascus, where the institutions of governance are.”
The real question, however, is not whether Assad can win, but “what does winning mean?” said Hanna, the retired Lebanese general. “For the regime today, surviving is winning, because the intention of the rebels was to dethrone Assad and it hasn’t happened.”
Suzan Haidamous and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut contributed to this report.