Syria Series – Part 2: Assad and the Syrian stalemate

Bashar Al-Assad's forces still control the key cities in Syria.

In part two of Revolution Observer’s Syria series, Adnan Khan explains why Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been unable to deliver a decisive blow to the Syrian rebels.

Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad before him main­tained a total­i­tar­ian con­trol of Syria. The mere pos­si­bil­ity of decent, let alone an upris­ing, was enough for the Syrian intel­li­gence ser­vices to kid­nap in the hun­dreds or for whole towns to be bull­dozed.

The last upris­ing was in 1982 and it resulted in a mas­sacre in Hama. The city was besieged for 27 days in order to quell the upris­ing. So when the Arab Spring spilled into Syria, many around the world believed the regime would quickly quell the upris­ing. After three years, Assad has barely main­tained con­trol and has lost large tracts of the coun­try to the rebels. Despite car­ry­ing out indis­crim­i­nate air attacks, aer­ial bom­bard­ment, car­pet bomb­ings and the use of chem­i­cal weapons, the Assad regime main­tains a ten­u­ous grip. There are four main rea­sons for this.

The Assad regime

Firstly, the strength of Assad’s regime has really been a mirage. The regime was able to main­tain its hege­mony for decades due to the fear it instilled in the peo­ple through its noto­ri­ous secret ser­vices. The Syr­ian secu­rity appa­ra­tus had been suc­cess­ful in clamp­ing down on the entire coun­try. Polit­i­cal dis­sent was vir­tu­ally non-existent and any Syr­ian citizen wish­ing to travel abroad would have to pass a num­ber of strin­gent secu­rity checks.

When the upris­ing began in 2011, rebel forces not only attacked gov­ern­ment build­ings, but tar­geted the secu­rity apparatus, killing secu­rity per­son­nel and dri­ving oth­ers out of towns. In Decem­ber 2012 Major Gen­eral Abdu­laziz al-Shalal — whose job was to mon­i­tor the secu­rity ser­vices for the regime — defected to the rebels say­ing he was leav­ing the “regime army” to join the “people’s revolution”. Once this fac­tor changed, the ears and eyes of the regime were cut and Assad’s forces have since strug­gled to quell the upris­ing. This is why much of the coun­try is out­side the con­trol of the gov­ern­ment today.

The Syrian army

Sec­ondly, although on paper the Syr­ian army con­sists of 220,000 sol­diers, most of the Syr­ian infantry is com­posed of Sunni sol­diers, who Assad could not rely on and thus he only had a small force to tackle the upris­ing. Con­se­quently, the bur­den of the fight­ing fell on two elite units: the 4th armored divi­sion and the Repub­li­can Guard. Together, these formations only pos­sessed a fight­ing force of around 30,000 men – less than 14% of the army’s total strength and they were forced to bear the lion’s share of casualties.

Hezbollah fighters are currently in Syria with Assad's forces.
Hezbollah fighters are currently in Syria with Assad’s forces.

Assad was forced to uti­lise only a small frac­tion of the army as he could not count on the loy­alty of the major­ity, i.e.  the Sunni Mus­lims. The sit­u­a­tion became dire by mid-2013 for Assad when the rebels began launch­ing attacks on Dam­as­cus – the seat of the regime. Defected offi­cial Brigadier Gen­eral Zaher al-Saket con­firmed the Assad regime was on the verge of col­lapse, this is what led to the inter­ven­tion of thou­sands of fight­ers from Hezbol­lah.

By August 2013 mat­ters were even more dire and in a tele­phone call inter­cepted by Ger­man spy chiefs, a senior Hezbollah com­man­der told the Iran­ian embassy in Lebanon that Assad launched the chem­i­cal attack which killed hundreds of peo­ple because he “lost his nerve” in a moment of panic and wor­ried that Dam­as­cus would fall to rebel troops.

Syrain rebels

Thirdly, the decen­tral­ised nature of the rebel groups forced the regime to fight simul­ta­ne­ously across the coun­try, over-stretch­ing the regime forces. Con­duct­ing simul­ta­ne­ous oper­a­tions crip­pled the regime which led to the army sustain­ing more losses than it could replen­ish.

Syrian rebels
Syrian rebels

The rebel forces oper­ated as a guer­rilla force and and lacked a national-level com­mand struc­ture that could be attacked by regime forces. This cre­ated mul­ti­ple cen­ters of grav­ity for which the regime could not pos­si­bly tar­get simul­ta­ne­ously, thus nul­li­fy­ing the risk of sys­temic col­lapse on the part of the rebels. As a result, the suc­cess the regime forces did have in terms of regain­ing ter­ri­tory in one part of the coun­try did not have an affect on other parts. It also meant that the death of rebel lead­ers and fight­ers did not impact the over­all rebel advance

Duration

Lastly, as the upris­ing dragged on the regime lost the capac­ity to launch deci­sive oper­a­tions to clear rebel held territories. As a result, the regime gave up on regain­ing the north of the coun­try and the coun­try­side. The amount of com­bat power the regime needed to secure and retain ter­ri­tory in the north became so high that it was not able to conduct oper­a­tions quickly and effi­ciently. Therefore the regime gave up reclaim­ing the north of the coun­try.

The regime then focused on hold­ing onto ter­ri­tory rather than con­duct­ing offen­sive oper­a­tions. It began secur­ing the heart­land of the coun­try which is the ter­ri­tory from De’ra to Latakia. Retain­ing ter­rain is now its main focus. This has mainly con­sisted of regime forces car­ry­ing out mass atroc­i­ties, inflict­ing heavy casu­al­ties on civil­ians in order to relieve pres­sure on ter­ri­tory in the heartland.

Despite Assad’s forces pos­sess­ing more fire­power and heavy weaponry, after three years, they have failed to defeat the peo­ple of Syria. Were it not for exter­nal sup­port, the Assad regime would have fallen in 2013. Iran has played a cen­tral role in prop­ping up the regime thor­ough eco­nomic sup­port and deploy­ing its rev­o­lu­tion­ary guards in the coun­try. Similarly, Hezbol­lah has played an active role in beef­ing up Syr­ian armed forces as many defected to the rebels.

Assad has also received sig­nif­i­cant sup­port from abroad as the West has turned a blind eye as he con­tin­ued his massacres. These are the factors that have prevented a rebel victory over Assad’s regime from com­plete col­lapse. Despite this, Assad will need to ensure he sur­vives every attack and every orga­nised offen­sive, the Ummah of Syria just need to be suc­cess­ful once in order to achieve real change in the country.

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