The fallout from the Syrian war has been so extreme and widespread, that the war itself has begun to fade from the world’s front pages. In the latest developments, Qatar is being castigated by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, for its rapport with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (see the article on Saudi-Iranian dialogue), causing a widening rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
In a loosely linked step, the Saudis have lined up behind the Obama administration’s backing for the Syrian rebel militias training in Jordan under US instructors. Those rebels fight in southern Syria with Jordanian and Israeli support.
Riyadh has also pulled the rug – arms and cash – from under the most radical Islamist organizations fighting Assad.
Has this last step altered the balance of the Syrian war between President Bashar Assad’s army and the opposition? DEBKA Weekly’s military sources say it has – to Assad’s advantage.
Brennan: Assad has a real army
Even when failure stared him in the face during the three-year Syrian conflict, Assad managed not only to survive but to emerge strengthened. He weathered the assassination of his inner circle of military and intelligence leaders by a suicide bomber in July 2012; the international furor over his chemical weapons in August 2013, and even the abysmal failure of the Geneva 2 conference that convened in January for a political solution of the Syrian crisis.
He came out of that conference bolstered further by the breakup of the US-Russian front which supported a transition government in Damascus, and by the eclipse of the Syrian political opposition in exile.
The secret of Assad survivability derives less from the his close alliance with Iran and Hizballah, and much more from his army’s loyalty and boundless resolve to keep on fighting the opposition, without regard for external factors or events.
Tuesday, CIA Director John Brennan speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations put it this way:
Assad "probably feels more confident" that his regime will survive as a result of his army's recent performance and the impact of fighting between Islamist rebels. Syria has a real army," Brennan said, which has benefited from years of training and equipping by Russia and is "a large conventional military force with tremendous firepower."
Assad carefully husbands his military personnel and firepower
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources analyze the ways in which the Syrian dictator’s manages his armed forces:
1. His use of manpower is economical and prudent. He deploys his army only in areas of combat essential to safeguarding his regime – even amid fluctuating threats. This practice has kept him in power with a military presence in such key locations as Tartus, Latakia, al-Suwayda, Damascus, Deir al-Zour, Idlib and Deraa. He judged he could afford to leave other important parts of the country, such as Syrian Kurdistan, without a military presence.
2. He has applied the same rule to his firepower resources, concentrating them on strategically important fronts pivotal to the survival of his regime, rather than on achieving quick victories.
The firepower amassed on the different fronts is not designed to defeat the enemy in rapid engagements, but to blockade the opposition. Assad never tells his commanders to charge the besieged enemy, but to starve them into submission even if this takes a year or more.
This strategy also disguises the inferior skills of his soldiers, compared with some of the opposition fighters.
The best example of this is the drawn-out military standoff in the Qalamoun mountain range now in its fourth month without the Syrian army gaining ground.
3. The availability of foreign reinforcements – Hizballah from Lebanon and Shiites from Iraq – has enabled the Syrian ruler to hold his own troops in reserve and save them for the task of defending his regime.
4. The Assad dynasty has traditionally drawn its strength from superior intelligence. His agents always manage to be a step or two before any rival services in the neighborhood.
5. Patience. While the world’s attention is riveted on Ukraine, the Syrian dictator waits with the patience of a cat at a mouse hole for the rebels to show a small chink through which he can strike and cause their final collapse.