When a country’s ruler and military are willing to give up one-third of their national territory, this usually means one thing: They are short of sufficient ground, air and naval forces to defend and hold it against an enemy.
This is what is happening to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Last week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources say, he let the Horan, the Golan, Mount Hermon and Har Dov – the Western Syrian regions bordering on Jordan, Syria and southern Lebanon – go to the insurgents, except for a few scattered strongholds.
This week, Assad gave up the entire Euphrates River valley to a rebel force and, in the wake of previous withdrawals from the Kurdish regions, ceded most of eastern Syria's border areas with Iraq.
He was driven to this juncture by several causes:
1. Although the 350,000-strong Syrian army remains formally loyal to the president, he and his military chiefs believe they can realistically trust no more than 70,000 men to fight for the regime.
At the same time, although Assad can’t count on three-quarters of his army’s allegiance, he still has to find the money to feed them every day and pay their wages lest they go over to the rebels. The full army complement has therefore become a millstone around his neck.
Assad decides to fight for Syria’s “backbone,” give up the rest
2. Because the remaining 70,000 troops are not up to holding the entire country, or even defend places recaptured from the rebels, the Syrian ruler, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report, has cut his holdings down to the "Syria's backbone." This is a narrow, 2,500-square kilometer strip enclosed by Daraa in the south, Damascus in the southeast, Hama and Homs in the center, Latakia and Tartus in the Mediterranean coastal west, most of the big city of Aleppo, and parts of Idlib province in the northern borderland adjoining Turkey.
He has simply and ruthlessly written off all the towns, villages, highways, railroads, airports, military and civilian centers, including some strategic industries such as electricity and water, no longer willing to allot a single battalion of 300 soldiers to defending them.
3. A standoff has developed between the Syrian army and the rebels in the sense that, while Assad no longer has the resources for holding on to the essential utilities supplying water, electricity and food, neither do the rebels have the numbers for capturing them. They also realize that attacking these strategic facilities would deprive both sides of the essentials of existence
4. Assad’s overriding concern at the moment, according to our military and intelligence sources, is his shrinking air force on which he counted to make up for the shortage of men on the ground.
Assad bids for Russian helicopters for his depleted air force
The Syrian air fleet of 600 war planes and helicopters of different types has been pared down by constant action to no more than 200 serviceable aircraft, whether by technical breakdowns, wear and tear or downing by rebel forces. While Syrian rebels are turning to the West for anti-aircraft missiles, the Syrian ruler can seek replenishments for his depleted air force from a single source – Moscow.
But the Russians have not been exactly forthcoming. In recent weeks, they delivered a few dozen YAK-130 training planes for use against rebel-held urban areas. They proved to be easy prey for rebel anti-aircraft weapons.
This week Assad urgently appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for two types of assault helicopters – the MI-24 and MI-25.
The Mi-24 (NATO code name: Hindi) is a large helicopter gunship, attack helicopter and low-capacity troop transport with room for eight passengers. Dubbed by Russian pilots the "flying tank", it is more commonly nicknamed "Crocodile" for its camouflage design, or "Glass" for the flat glass plates encasing the cockpit and making the copter hard to hit from the ground.
The Mi-25 Hind D helicopter gunship was used by the Soviet Red Army to savage Islamist mujahidin guerrillas in the 1979-89 Afghanistan war – until the Americans gave the Islamists Stingers to shoot them down.
Washington to Moscow: Think twice before acceding to Assad
Assad and his military planners calculate that large numbers of these attack helicopters could compensate for the Syrian army’s dwindling manpower resources.
Getting the Russians to supply them is another matter.
The Obama administration knows about the Damascus-Moscow exchanges regarding the helicopters because the Russians share some of this sort of information with Washington, under the secret cooperation deal sealed by President Barack Obama and Putin on Syria.
Washington sent back an intelligence assessment whereby, short of an extreme battlefield reversal – or altered situations in the Assad regime and rebel leadership, the rebels will by the coming summer be able to breach the defense lines of Damascus and seize and hold half the capital, just as they are now doing in Aleppo.
The Kremlin is therefore advised by the White House to take this into account before reaching a final decision on whether to let the Syrian ruler have the helicopters he wants.