The Syrian regime is pouring all available resources into its defense of the two main cities of Syria: Damascus and Aleppo.
While simultaneously constructing an Alawi enclave in the northwest, the Assads understand that maintaining control of these central urban areas is vital to maintain their claim to constitute the government of Syria. Lose the cities, and Bashar Assad’s regime will come to constitute just another sectarian force in a Syrian civil war.
As of now, the dictator’s forces appear to have largely succeeded in their mission in Damascus. In Aleppo, the battle is still on. Those who began last week to prepare eulogies for the Assad regime have once again spoken too soon.
This is because while the balance of power in Syria is slowly shifting in the rebels’ favor, the essential cause of the stalemate between the sides remains.
The rebels are now far too numerous and powerful for the regime to entertain hopes of re-imposing its authority throughout the entirety of the country in the foreseeable future.
Assad simply does not have sufficient manpower to carry out an effective campaign of counter-insurgency throughout the country.
A considerable portion of Syria has now slipped beyond Assad’s reach. In the northeast, Syrian Kurds have established their own autonomous area with the help of the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq. This enclave is aligned with neither the regime nor the rebels.
In the northwest, in Idlib province, the regime has abandoned earlier attempts to maintain its presence in rural areas. An area of rebel control now stretches from the Turkish border to just west of Aleppo.
So the regime is following a strategy of scaling down the area it seeks to control and making a supreme effort to ensure that in these designated areas, its authority remains intact and not open to appeal.
This strategy is enabling Assad to hold on because while he no longer has the manpower to hold the whole of Syria, he still possesses sufficient equipment and men to decimate his opponents at any (limited) chosen point in the country. The lightly armed rebels still have no effective answer to air power, artillery and heavy armor.
This pattern played itself out in Damascus this week. The appearance of the rebels in the capital dramatically showcased the weakening hand of the regime. The illusion of normality that Assad had nurtured in the capital for 16 months was shattered.
This, combined with the successful attack on the national security building in Damascus, was an ominous sign from the regime’s point of view.
The regime then rallied its most reliable and brutal forces. Republican Guard Commander Maher Assad’s 4th Armored Division began to drive the rebels from the districts into which they had inserted themselves.
As of now, the vital Midan and Mezzah districts are back in government hands. Sporadic fighting is continuing in some southern suburbs of the city, including Hajar alaswad and Qadam.
The regime is trying to repeat this pattern in Aleppo following the liberation of districts of the city by the Free Syrian Army earlier this week. Aleppo is the largest of Syria’s cities, with a population of 2.5 million. Control of the city would mean the inclusion of a major urban area in a rebel-held enclave for the first time. It would also represent an enormous further blow to the morale of the regime forces.
For these reasons, the regime is utterly determined to prevent the loss of the city. In line with its strategy of retreat and consolidation, the government has withdrawn forces from the Jebel Zawiya area of Idlib province and rushed them to the defense of Aleppo.
Jebel Zawiya, an area with a long tradition of resistance to centralized authority, is one of the heartlands of the revolt. The regime’s concentration of forces toward Aleppo is in effect a conceding of Jebel Zawiya to the rebels, at least for the moment. This is being undertaken to save what can – and from Assad’s point of view what must – be saved.
The regime is approaching the pacification of Aleppo with its usual single- mindedness.
Fixed-wing aircraft have been used to strafe rebel-held areas in the city. Helicopter gunships also kept up a steady fire. Their use underlined the vast difference in equipment between the two sides. Yet the regime’s preference for air power also suggests a reluctance to commit ground forces unless absolutely necessary. Assad’s preference for the use of stand-off fire has been notable in recent months. It may well suggest that he can no longer rely on the loyalty and steadiness of parts of his own army.
Still, it is unlikely that Aleppo will fall to the rebels, so the essential contours of the stalemate are likely to continue to prevail. For as long as they do, thousands more will continue to die in the Syrian civil war, as the rebels slowly endeavor to hollow out and grind down Assad’s killing machine.
To change the balance and push forward, what the rebels need is greater international involvement – most importantly, air cover to establish secure safe zones, training and higher caliber weaponry.
External assistance for the rebels has made the gains of the last months possible. But more will be necessary if the balance is to be tipped in the weeks ahead. So as Assad scorches the Syrian earth, the question as to how long this will continue now largely depends on attitudes in the West, and above all in Washington.