There’s such a constant barrage of news from Syria, somebody always advancing on this or launching air strikes on that, and it can be easy to slip into a sort of hazy feeling that things are going a certain inexorable way. Lately, for example, ISIS always seems to be struggling, as it is in Manbij and may soon be in and around Raqqa, and it’s sort of become accepted that the heavy Russian intervention left Bashar al-Assad in the driver’s seat when it comes to taking back control over the country. But ISIS isn’t done yet, and there are serious problems plaguing Assad’s forces that have to some extent been papered over by Russian air power.
A rebel group called the New Syrian Army is learning the former on the fly, having encountered a great deal more resistance than it probably expected in driving ISIS out of the eastern Syrian town of Al-Bukamal:
The New Syria Army rebel group had launched an operation on Tuesday aimed at capturing the town of Al-Bukamal from Islamic State and cutting supply and communications lines for the group between Syria and Iraq, the U.S. coalition fighting IS said.
One rebel source said Islamic State fighters had encircled the rebels in a surprise ambush. They had suffered heavy casualties and weapons had been seized by the jihadists, the source said.
“The news is not good. I can say our troops were trapped and suffered many casualties and several fighters were captured and even weapons were taken,” he said.
A spokesman of the New Syria Army, Muzahem al Saloum, confirmed the group’s fighters had retreated. “We have withdrawn to the outlying desert and the first stage of the campaign has ended,” Saloum told Reuters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the New Syria Army had been driven entirely from the province of Deir al-Zor, where Al-Bukamal is located.
The NSA (not to be confused with any other NSAs) has received US training and assistance and is part of the (at least formally) secular Free Syrian Army. Al-Bukamal is located near the Syrian-Iraq border and, as the except above says, driving ISIS out of there would help curtail its cross-border (to the extent there still is a border) traffic and deal a symbolic blow to the organizations “Death to Sykes-Picot” rhetoric. The NSA’s base of operations was also targeted earlier this month by Russian airstrikes (maybe; Russia denies this), so June hasn’t really been great for them.
Speaking of Raqqa, an unsuccessful Syrian army (the old one, not the New one) advance on the Tabqa airbase in that province shows both that ISIS still has some fight left in it and that Assad’s forces may not have as much fight in them as you might think. The army timed its bid to retake Tabqa to coincide with the fighting around Manbij, thinking that ISIS would devote more resources to Manbij and leave itself vulnerable at the “back door,” so to speak. The Oryx Blog has a detailed look at the campaign and its failure, and concludes that the Syrian army has been wrecked as a fighting force:
The catastrophic outcome of the regime’s attempt at directly challenging the Islamic State’s heartland must have not only amazed those following the offensive, but also the regime’s military itself. Once thought to be amongst the most powerful armies of the Middle East, the biggest enemy of the Syrian Arab Army didn’t prove to be Israel or Ba’athist Iraq, but the Syrian regime itself. The sectarianism, corruption and complete denial of reality so deeply embedded in its way of governing not only contributed to dragging Syria into an endless Civil War, but also completely debilitated the Syrian Armed Forces as an effective fighting force. In the past five years of conflict the regime’s military has so far proven to be entirely incapable of adapting to the type of warfare necessary to operate in the Syrian Civil War. As the core issues of the Syrian Arab Republic have only worsened over the past five years, it appears unlikely that the Syrian Arab Army will ever manage to present itself as a properly functioning military as long as the Ba’ath Party remains in power.
The failure at Tabqa plunged the Syrian Arab Army into an all time low, not only because it was made painfully clear that President Bashar al-Assad’s vision of bringing back ‘Every Inch of Syria’ under its control is currently a completely absurd notion, but also because it increased hostilities between the various forces participating in the offensive. With the regime’s military proven to be an unreliable partner for Russia, and with Syria’s role as a weapons depot and supply line for Hizbullah well secured for Iran and Hizbullah, it is not unlikely that the regime’s inability to conquer and secure more territory will lead to increased calls and pressure to allow for self-governing of certain parts of Syria. In any case, the needless waste of manpower, equipment and perhaps most of all morale shines a poignant light on the fact that there’s still no end in sight for Syria’s devastating war.
With Iran probably as committed to the cause as it can get and Russia exceedingly unlikely to go beyond providing air support, the deficiencies in Assad’s army is a massive obstacle standing in the way of a successful (for Assad) conclusion to the war.