The Syrian Army Is Shrinking and Falling Back, Nullifying Assad’s Options
In January 2014, six months before he established his caliphate, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), made his first bid to gain possession of Deir ez-Zour, the key to control of eastern Syria, its oil fields and its border with Iraq. This prize finally came within his reach on Tuesday, May 26. 2015, when Syrian President Bashar Assad ordered the Syrian army and air force to evacuate their Deir ez-Zour bases.
This amounted to a decision by the Syrian ruler to relinquish his control of eastern Syria. He also sent similar orders out to the troops fighting on the northern, southern and central fronts, where morale had sunk to the pits.
In Damascus, too, the ground had begun shaking under his feet.
ISIS and its rival, Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, had launched separate operations to capture the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, 7 km from the presidential palace and General Staff Headquarters in the capital. Having run out of fighting strength, Assad’s army had abandoned the camp’s defense to Palestinian militias still loyal to the regime and Tehran.
(See DEBKA Weekly’s map.)
Palestinian militias move up front as Assad’s mainstay
The Syrian ruler has been reduced to trusting his regime’s survival to a motley legion of Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen, the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah, Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias – and most of all, to the several thousand members of the “PLO’s Military Arm” which, under the command of Mohammed Said, draws most of its fighting strength from the Palestinian camps around Aleppo.
The Palestinians owe Assad a debt of loyalty for the many years their armed groups were given a base of operation and shelter. Most were non-religious factions but, of late, Islamic extremists like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were also given asylum.
The ISIS grab for the Yarmouk camp has strengthened this alliance. Indeed the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah has declared its support for the Syrian army’s operations to defend the camp.
Another previously unknown armed Palestinian group turned up of late in the Qalamoun battle and the fighting around Damascus. It calls itself the “Galilee Forces” or the “Galilee Brigade.” It is an offshoot of the “Return of the Young to Palestine” organization and is commanded by Fadi Al-Malah, popularly known as Abu al- Fadaa.
A 90,000-strong foreign Shiite legion takes over from Syrian army
The fact that Assad has to rely on this loose assortment of Palestinian paramilitary groups to defend the northern gates of his capital is a measure of his plight.
In general, he has fallen back on the large Shiite “foreign legion” of 90,000 Iranians, Hizballah combatants, imported Shiite militias and Palestinians to preserve his regime. Nearly five years of civil war have reduced the Syrian army to a shrunken semblance of its former size and strength. Heavy battlefield losses and the young Syrians who are now shunning military service have taken their toll. The army was forced to cancel the latest draft, the main source of fresh combatants, after very few recruits reported to the army registration centers.
To preserve the last remnants of his army, the Syrian president this week fired officers accused of mistreating the rank and file. The commander of the Aleppo force, army Gen. Khalid Haider, for instance, was sacked for reducing the soldier’s food rations to one pita and one egg a day.
The situation of Assad’s enemies contrasts starkly with Assad’s military plight.
No more parity between pro- and anti-Assad forces, as the opposition swells
ISIS has struck a rich mine of dedicated manpower. Month after month, thousands of young Syrians and thousands more Muslims from other countries flock to its ranks. They are drawn by two powerful inducements:
1. The appeal of a winning side, as the Islamic State keeps on scoring victories.
2. Good pay and working conditions. An ISIS fighter may draw a monthly wage of $1,000 and can stay in touch with the family he left behind and even care for them financially.
Another magnet for volunteers to fight Assad is the new Muslim militia, Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), founded by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, who spend unstintingly on pay as well as training. These fighters are already in the field in northwestern and southern Syria.
According to an updated evaluation by Western and Middle Eastern military and intelligence watchers, the numerical parity once existing between Iranian- backed and Hizballah forces fighting for Assad and the numbers raised by opposition groups plus ISIS is vanishing. The sources of Assad’s fighting manpower have dried up, whereas his enemies are constantly boosted by an influx of fresh young fighters.
Assad could crash without warning
This evaluation has led to the conclusion that Bashar Assad’s slow decline is picking up speed and he could crash without warning.
At any moment, as the Syrian army withdraws from the northern, central, eastern and southern sectors, one or more division or brigade may desert, abandoning uniforms and heavy weapons and diving into the civilian population, like the Iraqi troops who turned tail against ISIS.
A Western military source told DEBKA Weekly that Syrian troops and their officers are avidly following the war situation in Iraq and drawing comparisons with their own fast deteriorating fortunes. Looking around them, they see that nearly 80 percent of Syrian territory has fallen into opposition hands. Soon, they will have nowhere to flee to, if matters get worse.
Lebanon would be a last resort, except that Syrian officers and men don’t believe ISIS will halt its advance at the Syrian-Lebanese border, and no force is there to stop them crossing over.
Seen from this perspective, Assad may not be the last ruler to fall; it would then be the turn of Hassan Nasrallah and his Shiite Hizballah in Beirut.
And seen from Tehran, after losing its foothold in large parts of Iraq, Iran is in danger of losing the major assets it built up in Syria and Lebanon.