Is Assad’s Syrian army in trouble?
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The Yarmouk district of Damascus fell to the Islamic State group on April 3, just a few days after militants from the al-Nusra Front took the city of Idleb. Is the Syrian army running out of steam?
Just a few months ago, the balance of power was tipped in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favour, but his army has recently experienced a string of significant setbacks.
The first of these took place on March 25, when the regime lost control of the southern city of Bosra al-Sham. Then, on March 28, the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front seized the provincial capital of Idleb, located in the northwest of the country. Idleb is the second provincial capital to fall to rebel groups, (Raqqa, another provincial capital, is now a bastion of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL).
On April 1, the regime lost control of its last checkpoint on the Jordanian border. Then two days later, on April 3, the Islamic State group entered the Yarmouk district in Damascus, and has gone on to gain almost complete control of the neighbourhood.
And if these defeats weren’t enough, the IS group is also threatening the city of Salamiyeh, a regional regime stronghold, creating a direct threat to a key supply route that the Syrian regime has struggled to secure for months.
Is the Syrian army running on empty?
Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shiite movement and Assad’s unwavering ally, has gone to extreme lengths to reassure the public that the regime forces are in good shape.
"The loss of one village or one town doesn’t constitute a radical change in the war in Syria (...) The regime still controls the largest regions and the majority of Syrian people are still with the state,” the Shiite leader said in an interview given to the official Syrian channel "Ikhbariya".
Fabrice Balanche, director of Mediterranean and Middle East research group GREMMO (Groupe de recherches et d’études sur la Méditerranée et le Moyen-Orient), told FRANCE 24 that he thinks the Syrian regime has “lost its foothold”.
One factor could be the change of season. Spring gives the rebels waging guerilla warfare better weather, which facilitates movement and brings them a large influx of men and weapons.
However, Balanche thinks that the Syrian Army’s biggest problem is mobilising soldiers four years into a war that has already become a bloody quagmire.
“The successive setbacks show that the Syrian Army is struggling, mainly because they are lacking fresh recruits. The defeats will bring another heavy blow to the mens’ morale,” Balanche said.
This lack of manpower is not new and was one of the major factors in the regime’s failure to retake Aleppo, Balanche added.
“In early February, the army tried to cut off the route to Turkey but the soldiers were not motivated or experienced enough to succeed in closing this route,” he said. “The army wasn’t able to surround Aleppo as they had done with Homs.”
The rebels have no shortage of manpower however. The al-Nusra Front has also succeeded in uniting numerous rebel groups and now leads coordinated offensives, turning the al-Qaeda linked group into a major regional power player.
The Syrian army was also perhaps weakened by the fact that its unfailing ally Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement which helped the regime achieve victory in Homs and Mount Qalamoun, did not provide manpower in the struggle for Aleppo.
Hezbollah is less interested in involving itself in northern Syrian cities like Aleppo or Idleb because Lebanon’s borders are under no direct threat.
“This shows just how dependent the regime is on its allies: Hezbollah, Iran and Iraqi Shiite militias,” said Balanche, who thinks that Damascus could, considering the situation, abandon the idea of re-conquering lost territories, which would lead to a de facto partition of the country.
If the regime is in a tight spot, it is also because “Iran is busy with the negotiations on its nuclear programme with the West and so has assumed a lower profile in Syria,” according to Balanche.
Once an eventual deal is sealed at the end of June, Tehran will likely resume its support of the Assad regime, Balanche said.
Saudi Arabia, its Arab allies and Turkey are currently intervening in Yemen to halt the advance of Shiite Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran. They also want to implement change in Syria, where the regime is also an Iran ally.
Noah Bonsey, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, told AFP that “aid given by these countries [to Syrian rebels] is more efficient and substantial now that they have the support of the United States.”
These countries may also want to change the balance of power in favour of the Syrian opposition in order to pressure Bashar al-Assad into accepting the necessary concessions to reach a political solution to the conflict, according to Khattar Abou Diab, a professor of political science at Université Paris-Sud.
"The aim of the current battles is not to cause the fall of the regime but to pressure it into negotiating," he said. For the Arab countries that support the Syrian opposition, "without a change in the balance of power, there won’t be a political solution,” he said.