Syrian civil war: Can Assad's regime survive the onslaught from Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra?

The Syrian army is faltering in the face of determined onslaughts by extremists who have no fear of death. But it may be the only institution that can keep the nation intact

It’s a dangerous equation in the Syrian war that the further you are from Damascus, the more Bashar al-Assad’s regime seems doomed. And the more you drive around the vast area still held by government forces – and I’ve just completed around 1,100 miles of mountains, desert and battle fronts – the more you realise that the war will go on. And on. And that the Syrian army, outgunned and at times frighteningly outnumbered by its Islamist enemies, is not about to collapse.

But here are a few grim facts. Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra are now attacking the Syrian military in rows of suicide trucks, and along fronts so wide that the army often doesn’t have the manpower to withstand them. Rebel logistics are hi-tech and better than the Syrian army’s, and a lot of their communications systems are American. The insurgents have hundreds of anti-armour wire-guided TOW and Milan anti-tank missiles and can afford to fire three – even four – rockets at a single Syrian tank, knocking out its fire-control circuits so that its ammunition explodes and its soldiers are burnt to death. 

At Palmyra, in Homs province, between 1,800 and 2,000 Isis fighters were confronted by an army which could not withstand their constant attacks. In the two days before they retreated, Syrian troops smashed their way briefly into forward Isis positions, only to discover piles of “tactical vests” – advanced body armour – thermal missiles, stacks of Muslim prayer books in Russian (apparently belonging to Chechen fighters), enough sidearm ordnance for each rebel to carry 10,000 rounds of ammunition each, and stacks of Snickers chocolate bars. Even Isis, it seems, marches on its stomach.

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The Syrian army often finds itself outgunned by the insurgent groups

American “experts” talk glibly now of how the Syrian army will make a “planned retreat” to the mountains of the Alawites, the Shia sect of President Assad, and try to keep open the road from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast via Homs.

Syrian “experts” – a lot closer to the battle than the think-tank boyos in Washington – speak of a more political strategy. What the regime must do, they say, is hold on to the major cities in a line from Aleppo south through Hama and Homs to Damascus (Deraa in the south may or may not be included in the plan) and deprive either Nusra or Isis of a potential capital in Syria. Isis’s present capital, Raqqa, is a fag-end of a city in the desert and even Palmyra, symbolic though its loss has been, is no metropolis from which rebels can claim national sovereignty.

 

But the loss of Aleppo would give them a capital worthy of the name, the largest city in Syria, albeit the second metropolis after Damascus. Thus Aleppo is important, not because the Syrian government must keep it – which it must – but because its enemies must be deprived of it. The newly combined “Army of Conquest”, a Nusra-led and Nusra-cloaked alliance of Islamist satellite groups, is the greatest threat to date. And execution is as important to the rebels as the suicide bomb.

Army sources in Damascus say that 250 army families were taken for execution when Palmyra fell. One of the last government supporters to leave the city showed me a picture he took on his phone, of a smiling little girl, the daughter of an officer, who believed she was safe. “We know her father was slaughtered,” he said. “We don’t know what happened to her.” But as one Syrian officer put it to me last week: “I tell my soldiers that, yes, Isis can kill you – but that you are just as capable of killing Isis.”

 

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Members of the Syrian Red Crescent transport the bodies of reported regime fighters from rebel-held area into regime-held area

No wonder, then, that Iranian military personnel can be found – as I came across them this month – scattered in twos and threes around the battlefield, learning rather than fighting, no doubt tapping into the battle tactics used by their fathers in the titanic eight-year war between Iran and Iraq after Saddam’s 1980 invasion of the Islamic Republic. They are smart, well-educated; one of them, beside fields set alight by shellfire, cheerfully apologised to me in fluent English for not being able to speak. “Wrong place – wrong time!” he laughed.

But the Iranians are in Syria at the right time for Bashar al-Assad, and so are the Afghan Shia fighters brought in from Kabul, some of whom were queuing to visit the Umayyad mosque in Damascus last week, several dressed in military fatigues. With perhaps 50,000 dead, the Syrian army needs men. Conscripted troops now serve indefinitely. And if that army falters or ceases to exist, no other force is capable of holding Syria together. No wonder President Assad uses much of his speechifying to praise the army and its tens of thousands of “martyrs”.

It was thus necessary last week to make a pilgrimage to the Starship Galactica foreign ministry in Damascus to listen to Dr Faisal Mekdad – he is a medical doctor as well as deputy foreign minister – to find out just how confident the regime claims to be. How does he feel about the Iranians fighting on his side? And the Lebanese Hezbollah? Or is it true what the American “experts” say, that there is a “planned retreat” to the coast, to cling on to Damascus and Latakia and create a “rump” Syria?

Visiting Dr Mekdad is a bit like going to the dentist. It can be very painful – but you feel better afterwards. Or at least for a while. “It is our right to have anyone fight for us,” he says. “Whoever is ready to come and help us is welcome... The other party is a party of terrorists, and now we have every credible information that the French and the British will go to the EU and say that the Nusra Front is a ‘moderate’ group – they will try to rehabilitate Nusra, even though Nusra is a part of al-Qaeda...

“Of course, losing any small village is a big loss for us. Every square inch of Syria is important to us. But Aleppo is the second major city of Syria and losing it would be a big loss. But we have never – ever – in our [cabinet] meetings doubted that we will hold it. All our strategic planning now is to keep the way open to Aleppo, to allow our forces to defend it.”

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Syrian army soldiers and Hezbollah members flashing the 'Victory' sign in their positions overlooking the Flita height in the Qalamoun mountains

That the Syrian cabinet discusses Aleppo is proof of the city’s political as well as military importance – “all our strategic planning” is a dramatic phrase to hear in the mouth of any Syrian minister. I travelled the dangerous main supply route north of Aleppo months ago, with tracer rounds criss-crossing the road from both sides. The highway south can be attacked at any time. Nusra uses mountain bikes to spring out of the desert on lonely checkpoints at night.

“A few months ago,” Dr Mekdad complained, “before direct intervention to help Daesh [Isis] and Nusra by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, we were about to achieve a historic advance. The occupation of Idlib [city] would never have taken place without direct Turkish intervention – thousands of Turks, Chechens, huge forces were brought in, which attacked Idlib and Jisr al-Shugour. When we were preparing to liberate Idlib, we lost Jisr al-Shugour. We have to prepare for losses and gains. This is war.”

Ministers have a habit of saying things like this when the chips are down. Bashar al-Assad has said pretty much the same thing. But what Dr Mekdad was to say next was of a different dimension.

“It is clear now that without re-energising the army, reorganising it and enabling its central command to implement all its decisions, then we will not be able to achieve what we are planning to achieve.”  Dr Mekdad spoke of new weapons for the army – it sorely needs them to replace the clapped-out Warsaw Pact tanks that litter Syria, however much the minister’s promise was born of hope rather than signed contracts. But Aleppo returned to our conversation like a persistent mosquito.

“I agree when you speak about our cities from the strategic and humanitarian point of view. Yes, Idlib matters, Deir ez-Zour [where Syria’s surrounded army still holds out] matters, Raqqa matters – but they are not as important as Aleppo is. Once you have a strong central presence [in the country], you have every chance that the smaller towns could be brought back naturally, both militarily and politically... but in no way can we sacrifice a millimetre of our territory by ‘prioritising’ – it would absolutely be a big loss if Aleppo was not in our hands. We have confidence we can defend it.”

What was important for the government, Dr Mekdad said, “is whether Syria will survive or not. President Assad has not put himself as the No 1. He will work for Syria – and the most important thing is for Syria to survive.”

 

This is familiar territory, of course. The country must be reformed through a “political process” – we all know who that involves – or “Syria will be there no more – I am confident that things will not come to the second option. If it comes, many countries in the region will disappear.”

Which is what Bashar al-Assad has been saying since the start of the war. But when I go through my notes of my long journeys across Syria these past days, I come across individual stories. Of the army checkpoints facing armoured vehicles driven by suicide bombers, of the Syrian missiles which can only hit them at 300 yards – too close for the defending soldiers to survive the explosion. Of suicide “packs” of Isis men who fight to the last minute and only then blow themselves up. Of the Syrian MI-35 helicopters which run out of rockets and ammunition before they can destroy all their targets.  “Once Isis are close to you, it’s over,” one former Syrian officer remarked bleakly to me. “You must kill them before they get to you. Out-gunned, you don’t have a chance.”

The further you travel from Syria, the more imaginative become the stories to convince you of its destruction. The Americans have done a deal with the Russians to ship Assad off to exile in Moscow.  The Iranians will “close down” the Syrian war if the nuclear talks are successful. The Iranians don’t have confidence in the Syrian army. The most extraordinary  theory suggests that the “moderate” rebels will destroy both Isis and Assad.

There is no point in romanticising any side in this war. The government militias and the barrel-bombers and the torture chambers eliminate the use of pink eye-shades. But if you have to draw up a list of priorities for the Syrian regime to survive the coming weeks and months, they are easy to identify. It does not involve the Baath Party. Nor, for that matter, President Assad. The answer is simple: the Syrian army. New guns. New tanks. Aleppo.

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