What I Got Wrong About Assad’s Military Prospects
Early this summer, in a piece titled “Is Assad Delusional?”, I argued that whereas the regime was unlikely to reassert control over all of Syria, its alliance with Iran and Russia would eventually end the strategic threat posed by the insurgency without a pro-rebel international intervention. Recent military developments indicate the analysis was probably wrong. It overestimated the regime’s ability to translate critical Iranian and Russian support to lasting gains on the ground.
The article’s pessimism about the insurgents’ prospects was largely based on their inability to effectively respond to Russia’s entry into the war. The Russian intervention brought overwhelming air and artillery capabilities to the regime war effort, along with professional military advisors and planning. Within weeks this combination stabilized faltering regime front lines, and rebel-held Aleppo was nearly encircled. The regime also made substantial progress in subduing the rebel-held Damascus suburbs. The war’s once-critical southern front appears to have gone dormant. As recently as a few weeks ago, pro-regime forces laid siege to Aleppo.
Recently, however, the regime is once again struggling to protect its hard-won positions on two important fronts. First, a coalition of jihadist, Salafist, and mainstream rebel groups broke through regime defenses in southwest Aleppo, breaking the siege on the city’s insurgent-held areas and holding their gains for 28 days against a heavy counterattack. Regime defense apparently succumbed to suicide vehicle bombs and shock attacks. In the past few days, multiple assaults by the Syrian Army, Hizballah, and allied militias finally re-imposed the siege. The Jaish al-Fatah operations room that broke the siege has launched a counterattack and promises to liberate all of Aleppo. Recent regime gains are a setback for the rebels, but the pattern of fighting in the past few days indicate they are fragile.
Aleppo is symbolically and strategically important, but the regime faces an equally serious problem further south, in Hama province. Insurgents have quickly overrun regime positions, putting them within six miles of the city of Hama and shelling distance of its airport. The rebels may not take Hama city but could overwhelm the surrounding military infrastructure. Hama is the gateway to the Homs plain, the pivot of the regime’s entire “useful Syria” strategy of controlling western population zones and transport routes. The rebellion’s newly-captured territory also abuts a large Alawite population. Again, this rebel progress was made in a critical geography, despite heavy air strikes, and regime defenses fell quickly. The main purpose, however, is to draw much-needed regime soldiers away from Aleppo, exploiting the regime’s central weakness in manpower.
The regime’s troubles in Aleppo and Hama highlight two things: First, the quality of fighters and leadership deployed to defend these highly strategic areas may simply be poor. For example, these forces have failed to build effective defenses, especially to counter the deadly suicide vehicle bombs employed by jihadist groups, or to adapt to insurgent shock tactics. Regime forces also appear to be struggling to retrieve relatively small territory that the insurgents took fairly quickly, despite facing superior firepower. This includes Aleppo where the regime has supposedly deployed some of its best troops alongside Hizballah. The armed forces are also beset by structural decay reflecting the weakening of the Syrian state, which is inevitably affecting the quality and morale of frontline troops. As Tobias Schneider discussed recently at War on the Rocks, even the supposedly formidable Tiger Forces active in Aleppo are riven with parochialism and criminality.
Second, the regime’s biggest problem seems to be manpower. Hard numbers are nearly impossible to come by, but anecdotal reports and battle footage indicate the number of fighters involved in any battle at one time is low, regardless of its importance. The Aleppo siege was broken by no more than 4,000 fighters, according to my conversations with members of the opposition. Opposition sources report that the assault in Hama province reportedly involves no more than 2,500 insurgents, facing regime forces in the low thousands despite the province’s strategic value. Footage of some of the regime’s defenses, and confirmed reports that regime is redeploying troops from the already imperiled Aleppo front to Hama, indicate the regime lacks troops to hold two critical fronts at once. This is especially true in northern Syria, while the regime is performing better in and around the capital.
Territory in Aleppo and Hama may exchange hands multiple times going forward. Rebel reversals are possible, if not probable: Whenever the regime and its allies jointly commit to any single military objective, they tend to achieve it. The point, however, is that while Russian airpower, artillery support, and advisors may have saved the regime from collapse in 2015 and facilitated important regime gains since, they have not compensated for its core weaknesses. Without enough capable soldiers, the scope of regime goals and ambitions must shrink also. Russia is probably drawing that conclusion as well, which may in part explain its apparent acquiescence to Turkey’s land war in northern Syria.
Yet, despite these serious handicaps, it was largely regime confidence and ambition that drove it to undermine the Cessation of Hostilities reached in February, and to act so aggressively in Aleppo while neglecting Hama. Russia’s rumored lack of enthusiasm for Assad’s campaign to besiege Aleppo (despite providing air support) indicates it may have a better estimate of regime capabilities. Or it simply showed that Assad is able and happy to drag an important patron into unwanted battles. That trick may continue to work for the regime, but short of a large-scale deployment of Russian or Iranian combat troops, it may have to adjust its ambitions to fit its capabilities.
The United States and its allies should not assume, however, that the regime agrees with this calculus, or that it is willing to contemplate a political settlement with the opposition. Despite some analysts’ speculation that Assad would be content or could be forced to live with a rump state, there is simply no evidence that anyone who matters on the regime side agrees. Assad’s actions certainly suggest he is determined to defeat the insurgency. As long as Russia and Iran’s commitment to Assad dwarfs their rivals’ commitment to the insurgents, the regime has no incentive to moderate its ambitions and no ability to crush the rebellion decisively. This is a recipe for endless war in Syria.
This oddity — the regime’s confidence in setting ambitious goals and its inability to sustain wins — complicates U.S. attempts to end this conflict and ensures it will not end soon. The United States should not take the regime’s military problems to mean a negotiated settlement is possible under the current balance of power. It may well be that the regime would never contemplate a settlement, whatever its difficulties. The surest means of finding out, however, is the judicious application of U.S. military force and an adjustment of proxy tactics in order to magnify the regime’s weaknesses. Military action could aim to blunt the instruments the regime uses to compensate for its significant manpower problem, or to attach a high cost to their use. For example, indiscriminate bombing of population zones and sieges are critical for the regime’s war effort and could be met with U.S. standoff strikes on regime military assets as well as a qualitative and quantitative increase in support for vetted insurgent groups. Vetted but dormant rebel groups in southern Syria should also be reactivated. Assad is weaker than I thought, but this only matters if the regime itself believes this. Otherwise Assad will fight on regardless of his weaknesses. U.S. attempts at striking lasting deals with Russia will continue to fail and embarrass, and the war will go on.
Faysal Itani is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, where he focuses primarily on the Syrian conflict and its regional dimensions.