May 7, 2015 | Quote

Bashar al-Assad is Losing Ground in Syria

For most of the past two years, it looked like Bashar al-Assad's campaign to hold on in Syria was working. Syria's weak, uncoordinated, and increasingly Islamist rebels were being gradually pushed back. And while ISIS had seized vast parts of the country, it and Assad appeared to tolerate one another in a sort of tacit non-aggression pact designed to crush the Syrian rebels. It seemed that Syria, and the world, would be stuck with Assad's murderous dictatorship for the foreseeable future.

But in the past few weeks, things appear to have changed — potentially dramatically. The rebels have won a string of significant victories in the country's north. Assad's troop reserves are wearing thin, and it's becoming harder for him to replace his losses.

A rebel victory, to be clear, is far from imminent or even likely. At this point, it's too early to say for sure what this means for the course of the Syrian war. But the rebels have found a new momentum against Assad just as his military strength could be weakening, which could be a significant change in the trajectory of a war that has been ongoing for years.

“Jisr al-Shughour is a good example of how the regime is, indeed, losing ground,” Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told me. “Most observers were surprised at how quickly it fell, given that it is a town of some strategic importance.”

Recent regime defeats reflect growing unity among the rebels as well as fundamental weaknesses on the regime's side.

The Idlib advance, in particular, was led by Jaish al-Fatah, a new rebel coalition led by several different Islamist groups. While the coalition includes Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise, the jihadis don't appear to dominate the group.

“The operations also displayed a far improved level of coordination between rival factions,” Lister writes, “spanning from U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades, to moderate and conservative Syrian Islamists, to al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and several independent jihadist factions.”

Rebel coordination is nothing new in Syria. But this coalition stands out for its size and breadth.

“The number of fighters mobilized for the initial Idlib city campaign has been significant, and that's been just as true in subsequent operations in the north,” Bonsey says. “The level of coordination we've seen over several weeks, on multiple fronts, is something that we have rarely, if ever, seen from rebels in the north.”

And as the rebels have gotten more united, the regime has gotten weaker. The basic problem is attrition: Assad is losing a lot of soldiers in this war, and his regime — a sectarian Shia government in an overwhelmingly Sunni country — can't train replacements quickly enough.

Bonsey calls this an “unsolvable manpower problem.” As a result, he says, Assad is becoming increasingly dependent on his foreign allies — Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah specifically — to lead the ground campaign.

But Iran has shown limited willingness to commit heavily to areas like Idlib, and rather is concentrating principally on defending the regime's core holdings around Damascus and the coast. According to Bonsey, “it's a matter of priorities,” which is to say that their resources aren't unlimited, and they've (so far) preferred to concentrate them in the most critical areas.

Iran's involvement in conflicts in Iraq and Yemen on top of Syria has left it “really overstretched,” according to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The cumulative resource investment has “certainly had an impact on Assad losing territory in Syria,” he concludes.

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