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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has suggested for the first time that his “all corners” strategy of deploying troops to wherever they are needed in Syria is no longer working, potentially signaling a much-anticipated pullback to more easily defensible lines in the western half of the country.
The Syrian army has been decimated by four years of fighting, with the number of soldiers dropping due to casualties and desertions from a pre-civil war strength of around 300,000 to about 80,000 to 100,000, according to diplomatic sources in Beirut. Even the emergence of numerous loyalist militias – including foreign Shia fighters from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – is proving insufficient to hold onto the further reaches of the country, let alone decisively defeat the rebel forces.
“There is a lack of human resources [in the army] … the problem facing the military is not related to planning but to fatigue,” Assad said in a rare and unusually frank televised speech on Sunday. “It is normal that an army gets tired, but there’s a difference between fatigue and defeat. … We are not collapsing. … The word defeat does not exist in the Syrian army’s dictionary.”
Nevertheless, in recent days Assad has issued an amnesty for army deserters and draft dodgers in a desperate attempt to boost recruitment. And he admitted that the army has been forced to abandon some parts of the country, hinting that his regime is now prioritizing which areas to defend.
“Sometimes we concentrate our arsenal and the army in an important area, but that comes at the expense of other areas, which become weaker,” he said. “We are obliged in certain circumstances to abandon regions in order to move troops to regions that we want to hold on to.”
This candid assessment is at odds with comments made in January, when Assad articulated his strategy of deploying troops across the country in order to preserve Syria’s unity.
“If you look at a military map now, the Syrian army exists in every corner. … If you didn’t believe in a unified Syria, that Syria can go back to its previous position, you wouldn’t send the army there, as a government,” he told Foreign Affairs magazine in an interview.
The notion of an “all corners” strategy was important to Assad, as it allowed him to continue presenting himself as the president of a unitary state able to deploy his forces wherever they are needed to stamp out the “terrorist” threat.
Six months ago, when Assad gave the interview, he was in a reasonably secure position. His forces had clawed back some rebel-held areas, and his government enjoyed the diplomatic, logistical and financial support of Russia and Iran. The rise of hardline groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also had dampened some of the anti-Assad rhetoric in Western capitals.
Since then, however, Assad has suffered a series of battlefield setbacks in the north and south of the country. Jaysh al-Fatah, a newly formed coalition of rebel groups, seized most of Idlib province in the north, including the city of Idlib and the town of Jisr al-Shughour. Much of southwestern Syria is now in rebel hands. In May, ISIL captured the central Syrian town of Palmyra and continues to inch its way westward toward the critical highway linking Damascus to the Mediterranean coast.
The sudden reversals are due not only to the Syrian army’s manpower shortage but also to decisions by the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to set aside their differences on Syria policy and cooperate more closely. That cooperation has led to more coordination on the ground from the disparate and often rival rebel factions.
Iran appears to have accepted the rationale behind a pullback to the west, which would pull back the Syrian army to a line extending roughly from Damascus to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast in northwest Syria. The enclave could include the cities of Homs and Hama and possibly Jisr al-Shughour if it can be recaptured from Jaysh al-Fatah. Recent reports indicate that the Syrian army has renewed efforts to take back the strategically located town that sits at the junction of routes leading to Hama and Latakia.
Iran’s strategic interests in Syria are mainly focused on territory in the coastal areas and the area contiguous to the border with Lebanon, through which weapons are smuggled to Iran's protégé Hezbollah. Since March, Iranian and Hezbollah forces have directed their attention to parts of the country that could be included in the enclave. They have pulled out of most of southern Syria and are now deployed along a line at Kisweh, nine miles south of Damascus and home to the Syrian army’s 1st Armored Division. Hezbollah is also spearheading an attack against rebels in Zabadani, west of Damascus and five miles from the Lebanese border, as well as other rebel-held territory in the Qalamoun mountains straddling the Lebanon-Syria frontier.
In the coastal areas, Hezbollah and Iranian forces are helping establish a new militia called the Coastal Shield Brigade, formed mainly of Alawites — a Shia splinter sect that forms the backbone of the Assad regime — who wish to fight closer to their homes.
“Hezbollah and Iranian forces withdrew in March back from remote areas and have since concentrated on Damascus, Qalamoun and the coastal areas, and in all their communications they speak only of these areas,” said a European diplomat in Beirut.
Before Assad’s speech Sunday, his regime seemed to have been slower in accepting the necessity of abandoning distant parts of the country to retrench around key areas. Syrian troops are still holding out in isolated places like Deraa and the Jabal Druze region in the far south, Deir ez Zor in the east and Hasake in the northeast, although the chances of holding these areas in the long term are slim. Even Assad’s grip on Aleppo is under threat. Only a narrow finger of desperately vulnerable territory links Aleppo to regime-held areas, but analysts doubt he will abandon Aleppo, which is Syria’s largest city and was once its economic hub.
“He is not giving up on Aleppo, which is clearly a drain on his forces, nor is he giving up on Deraa and the Jabal Druze. Both these regions are key strategically and morally for his pretense to be the defender of Syria's minorities and urban populations,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the Syria Comment blog.
Still, the military manpower shortage leaves Assad with few options other than a retrenchment if he wishes to remain in power. His speech on Sunday, while striking a sometimes defiant tone, may be a tacit acknowledgement of that grim reality.