Assad’s one-before-the-last stand

During the 1920s and 1930s, the French had established a separate colony called the “Alawite State” with the intent to give the Alawites their own country, but later administratively amalgamated them with the Muslim majority in the rest of Syria.

In the south, the forces of the Southern Front are now within 100 miles of Damascus. As importantly, they have kicked the Syrian 52nd Brigade out of the area, and are now threatening the Druze, which have been left without the Syrian military to defend them.

The Syrian military is no longer capable of large, mobile ground operations. In addition to the accelerating disintegration, the army, after four years of non-stop war, can no longer replace its dead and wounded soldiers. The Alawite community is too small to continue to provide military-age recruits, and Sunni, Kurdish, and Druze soldiers have defected from – and new recruits no longer join — what they and their community leaders regard as an Iran-supported Shi’a-Alawite organization.

Thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon have helped the Syrian army to keep going for a while, but Hezbollah itself is a small organization, and it has already suffered around 1,000 dead and 3,000 wounded in Syria. Iran has thousands of military and intelligence officers in Syria to help the Assad regime, but has so far not sent soldiers to engage the rebels and ISIS forces.

Defending stationary positions is less demanding than mobile warfare, and it is probably the best the Syrian military can now do.

The second reason is that Assad has given up on regaining the territory the regime has lost. He is preparing to defend only two areas: Damascus, and the Alawite region in Syria’s north-west. The building of the defensive line east of the capital is an indication that the regime expects the battle for Damascus to take place sometime in the fall.

Military analysts say that it is doubtful that a stationary defensive line would be effective in stopping the anti-regime forces, even if that line is supported by the remnants of the Syrian air force. The anti-regime forces — especially ISIS – use mobility, speed, and surprise to compensate for their inferiority in fire power. In their operations in Iraq and Syria so far, the rebels – and, again, especially ISIS – have defeated larger and much better equipped formations by sending fighters on pick-up trucks deep behind the lines, where they then turn around and attack the army (Syrian or Iraqi) forces from the back or the flanks.

A stationary line is likely to make this mobile approach even more effective.

What is not clear right now is what the various rebel groups and ISIS militants plan to do. Jish al-Fatah may decide to go deeper into the Alawite region and attack Latakia, while sending some forces south toward Damascus. The Southern Front may decide to drive east toward Jabal al Druze, or north toward Damascus. ISIS may move west from Palmyra toward Damascus, or may decide to re-ignite the fighting against Hezbollah forces in the Kalamoun Mountains, which sit on the border between Syria and Lebanon. Gaining control of the Kalamoun range would separate Damascus from the Alawite region in the north, and would allow ISIS to join forces with jihadists in Lebanon.

The mini-Maginot Line being built east of Damascus is an admission by the Assad regime that battle for Syria is over. It is not yet clear who will control Syria, but it is clear it will not be Assad and the Alawites. Their forty-five years in power are over.

The question for Assad, rather, is who will control Damascus and the Alawite region. The building of the line east of the capital is an indication that he is getting ready to fight for the control of the capital, but there is no reason to believe that his dilapidated forces will be effective defending this line against the rebels and ISIS. In light of developments on the battlefield in the last six months, and noting that the Syrian forces are getting weaker, not stronger, it is more likely than not that the defensive line will fail and Damascus will fall.

We should thus assume that the battle for Damascus is a delaying tactics, aimed to gain time for the preparations for the ultimate battle – the battle over the Alawite region. It will be a battle over more – much more — than the fate of the Assad regime. It may well be a battle over the very fate of the Alawites.

Ben Frankel is the editor of the Homeland Security News Wire