In his first public address in a year, embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed Sunday to win his country’s long-running civil war while acknowledging his troops had lost territory to rebel forces and were running short on manpower.
Assad’s military advantages over the rebels — in things like training, equipment, and (above all) air power — have been apparent from the beginning of the war. But his potential disadvantages, like the fact that his core supporters probably make up a minority of the Syrian population, which limits his manpower, and that many of his soldiers are in the army doing mandatory service and are unlikely to be inclined to risk their lives in Assad’s cause (particularly when they’re poorly paid and treated), are only coming to the fore now as the defeats (in the northeast, in Idlib, in Palmyra) have piled up. Soldiers and potential soldiers are avoiding service and deserting, some defecting to the rebels, and of course tens of thousands (the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates over 80,000) of Syrian soldiers and pro-Assad paramilitaries have been killed over the course of the war. Assad can’t sustain losses like that forever, particularly not against enemies whose fighters frequently appear to be more committed to the fight than his own fighters.
Paradoxically, while Assad’s recent losses have demoralized his forces and may be spurring more desertions, they’ve also done a couple of things that could help Assad to stay in the fight: they’ve allowed him to concentrate his defenses in a smaller, more easily defensible (even with smaller numbers) area in Damascus and along the Alawite corridor in the northwest (though it’s gotten to the point where he’s even abandoning some of these core areas because they can’t be defended anymore), and they’ve focused the efforts of his own fighters, particularly his Alawite supporters and his Hezbollah allies, who know what an extremist Sunni-led Syria would look like and really don’t want to see that happen. That may be helping Assad’s fortunes in places like Zabadani, on the Lebanese border, where Hezbollah appears to be winning at the moment. But in the long-term, he’s going to be very dependent on some outside lifeline, like Iran (they seem more likely to stick by Assad than does Russia), to fend off defeat.
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