Notwithstanding the self-created confusion in the United States and most other western countries over which Syrian revolutionary groups to support, and in light of the latest Turkish decision to fight Daesh (the self-proclaimed) Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) extremists and Kurdish militants simultaneously, Syria is bound to implode.
This tragedy can be avoided if Syrians work out their differences, perhaps through a Second National Congress as suggested by leading Arab nationalists, though the hurdle that is preventing a resolution is the Baath regime itself. Nearly five years into a bloody war with no end in sight, can anyone prevent this implosion and avoid the beginning of prolonged conflicts among nascent statelets that will inevitably rise across Syria?
In a remarkably frank presentation on July 26, the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad acknowledged immense pressures on his increasingly fragile military, claiming that it is widely overstretched and exhausted. Consequently, and for tactical reasons, there was little choice but to retreat from certain areas. Long gone was the 2011 bravura that anticipated victories galore. Today, the Syrian Arab Army is engaged in a war of attrition that has sapped its manpower, which was why Al Assad amnestied deserters in the hope that some might return and launched a new campaign that urged citizens to enlist.
A satrapy of Iran and Hezbollah
Short of fighting men willing to die for a lost cause, few volunteered and even fewer believed that their leaders, especially civilian party officials, could usher in a victory of the brave. Simply stated, the mighty Syrian Arab Army was but a satrapy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah, which meant that without them, most of the territories that linked Damascus to Latakia would have fallen some time ago. That might still be the case, although by the president’s own avowal, few of his own troops were willing to stick around to find out. This was not a felicitous development for the Syrian regime as it contended with overwhelming offensives that cornered it into indiscriminate aerial campaigns against its own nationals. Pretending that such brilliant tactical manoeuvres were the only ways to defeat rebel elements was a clever misnomer since killing one’s own people was a solid sign of abject failure. Moreover, by informing everyone that his forces regrouped in strongholds to the west so that the regime could better defend said localities, Damascus signalled that it was carefully paving the way for partition.
To be sure, the government controls key cities, including Hama, Homs, Damascus and Latakia, although the first two lie in ruin. It is also fair to say that the regime held strategic military bases, even if one wondered what was the point of holding on to the airport in Deir Al Zor, the T4 base in eastern Homs and the Thaalah base in the south, near Daraa. The regime lost almost all of Idlib province in the north, the strategic city of Jisr Al Shughur, and was increasingly under pressure to service Aleppo, which is now in a precarious situation.
What happens in Aleppo will eventually determine Syria’s fate, although the brutal aerial campaign against rebel positions there does not bode well, especially now that Turkey has decided to join in the fighting. Of course, Ankara threw in the proverbial towel because it evaluated the rise of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), an ally of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with alarm and feared a spillover inside Turkey itself. This preventive measure is complicated and unclear on several levels but time will tell whether Ankara will mobilize Nato forces, Russia, Iran and others, although no one should rejoice at an expansion of the war that will further add to Syria’s misery. In fact, and while there are those who foresee a government victory, in reality, the regime is caught in a downward spiral with both Aleppo and Daraa likely to fall before too long. Likewise, rebel forces will now be beholden too, which may well muddle things to those who enjoyed freedom of action until now.
Naturally, and even if its back was against the wall, the Al Assad regime was determined to fight for Aleppo and Daraa because their loss would further delegitimise the state. Indeed, a de facto partition of the country is guaranteed when either or both of these cities fall. Clearly, such an outcome would effectively mean that the regime is restricted to a strip of territory in the west, stretching from Damascus through Homs, Hama and Latakia, and the Al Qalamun mountain range along the Lebanese border that is defended by Hezbollah. A few days ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, was having a change of heart on the Kremlin’s wholehearted support for Al Assad. Putin may eventually give up on Al Assad although what is uncertain was whether Ankara forced Moscow’s hand, either to accept the country’s partition (presumably to protect Turkey from Kurds), or preserve Syria’s unity under a different system of rule.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.