Endgame in Syria: Assad forces in retreat as rebels increase pressure

Haaretz reports that Israeli intelligence and defense establishment say that the Syrian president may be forced to flee the capital as a result of the increasing attacks by rebels, who have been shelling his palace – and other targets, like the international airport — from their strongholds in the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus.

If he fled the capital, it would be to the Alawite region in Syria’s northwest, around coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus.

The Alawite region may not be a safer haven for Assad, though. Since March, the rebels have defeated the Syrian military in a series of important battles, and have been pressing their westward advance. The rebels have pushed from Aleppo to Idlib, and then to the city of Jisr al-Shughur, and to the Nebi Yunis ridge – which places Latakia within range of rebels’ artillery fire – deep inside Alawite territory.

Haaretz notes that the growing pressure by rebel forces in these two key areas – around Damascus and in the Alawite region in Syria’s northwest — is, for the first time in a long time, posing a major threat to the Assad regime.

The next, perhaps decisive, battle is over control of the Qalamoun Mountains. The Syrian army and Hezbollah have been trying to reestablish control of the vital corridor between Syria and the Shi’a, Hezbollah-controlled areas in northeast Lebanon. The corridor is essential to the regime’s survival because it is used by Iran and Hezbollah to ship troops and arms to support the regime.

Last week Hezbollah declared an emergency, intensified fund raising among Lebanese Shi’as for the war, and increased its effort to recruit new fighters for it described as “the decisive battle for the Qalamoun Mountains.”

The goals of Hezbollah and Iran involve more than keeping the corridor open for supplies from Iran and Hezbollah to Assad – and for advanced arms shipments from Syria’ depots to Hezbollah. Hezbollah and Iran are desperate to prevent more Islamist forces from getting into Lebanon to fight Hezbollah on its home turf, and also to keep open the supply lines between Damascus and Homs and between Homs and Latakia, large cities still under Assad control.

The new phase of the war reflects a change of tactics by the different rebel forces. It appears that they have concluded that rather than take on large cities and try to defeat the stronger regime elements in these cities, it would be easier and more effective to take control of the roads and supply lines connecting these cities. The Assad forces now find themselves more and more on isolated “islands” surrounded by rebel forces. If they send forces out in an effort to clear the roads and reopen the supply lines, they find themselves more exposed to attacks by rebel forces.

This new approach by the rebels has allowed them to capture the cities of Idlib, and then to the city of Jisr al-Shughur, disconnecting Aleppo from Latakia and dramatically increasing the pressure on the Alawite areas in Syria’s northwest.

The rebels are also in control of most of the border crossings between Syria and its neighbors – Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey.

The growing effectiveness of the rebels is also the result of growing coordination among the various rebel groups, and the growing coordination among the main outside supporters of the diffeennt rebel groups. Saudi Arabia supported the Free Syrian Army and moderate Islamist groups not connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey and Qatar, on the other hand, supported Islamist militias related to the Muslim Brotherhood. One of the more interesting recent developments has been Qatar’s efforts to persuade Jabhat al-Nusra to sever its ties to al-Qaeda. The effort is yet to bear fruit, but Nusra has exhibited more willingness to coordinate its campaign with other anti-regime forces and distance itself from Islamic State (also: Israel has been treating injured Nusra fighters in Israeli hospitals). Qatar has been telling the Nusra leadership that while Islamic State and al-Qaeda rely on foreign fighters, most of Nusra’s fighters are Syrians, and if Nusra wants to have a voice in post-Assad Syria, it should cooperate with the other Syria-based forces in the anti-Assad effort rather than with foreign elements.

The Assad regime may be on the ropes, but this is not the end yet. Winston Churchill’s words may be appropriate here: In a speech on 10 November 1942, following the defeat of Rommel’s army in Egypt by the Allied forces led by General Alexander and General Montgomery, Churchill said that although “the news from the various fronts has been somewhat better lately,” the war was far from over. “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

The Assad forces, weakened and demoralized, are in retreat, but they cannot be counted out yet. Still, there is a growing sense in the region that the situation in Syria is changing, and that these changes do not favor President Assad.