Syria's vice president says Syria's army can't win:
"All these opposition forces can only conclude the battle to topple the regime if their goal is to push the country into chaos a cycle of violence that has no end," al-Sharaa said in the interview. "I don't see that what the security forces and army units are doing will lead to a definitive victory."
That was a mistake. You shouldn't undermine the confidence of the troops. I never understood why opponents of the war in Iraq kept insisting that President Bush admit the war wasn't going well unless these opponents just wanted our troops to lose heart and lose the war. But President Bush figured he owed more to the troops than to the pundits. So he never publicly gave our troops reason to give up.
Nonetheless, the Syrian vice president is right, of course. And if the Syrians keep trying to hold the whole country, that army will grow tired of fighting and collapse. Especially if they think their sacrifice is as pointless as their vice president says.
Assad needs to do something that offers his troops hope of victory by giving them an objective within reach. Assad needs to abandon large parts of Syria to the rebels and prepare to rebuild his forces to retake the country.
I once thought that a retreat to a core Syria would be possible. But attrition has reduced the ground security forces to less than what is necessary to hold that territory. Unless Assad plans on some serious ethnic cleansing, he has to truncate his state below even that arc of territory running from Turkey to the Israeli and Jordanian borders in the west.
But abandoning Damascus is a problem. Even if Assad transfers the capital to the coastal region, the city of Damascus has a lot of assets and people that may not be easily moved if Assad wants to retreat to an Alawite rump Syria. And the symbolism of controlling the traditional capital may be too powerful to lightly give up. Would the UN use the abandonment of the existing seat of government as a reason to de-recognize Assad's government as the legitimate representative of Syria?
So, could Assad hold his rump Alawite homeland plus the territory down to Damascus? Call this one, Minimum Syria. As in the minimum to still be recognized as Syria.
I used these stats for population. I then added 10% since the stats are from 2004.
Let's go to the map, again:
Let me assume now that Assad retreats to the provinces of Tartus and al Ladhiquiyah, plus the city of Hama (Hamah on the map) and then the territory down the main north-south highway through Homs (Hims) and then to Damascus.
Assuming the population figures for Hamah, Hims, and Damascus province (Dimashq) would be concentrated in the west, I assumed that Assad would hold 75% of the people in those provinces just to hold that north-south highway line.
This would provide a figure of 7.7 million people--about a third of Syria's population.
The last serious numbers for Assad's ground forces (army and other security) that I read put them at 120,000.
If you use the general rule of needing troops numbering 2% of the population to protect (or control), Assad would need 154,000.
So he's short. But not dramatically so. Perhaps with a realistic plan to survive, Assad could get Russia to commit a marine regiment to hold a base region on the coast and a parachute division in the north to help deter Turkey and help hold the front south of Aleppo. Call that 10,000 troops. Maybe Iran can toss in half that in irregular plain clothes thugs. Perhaps Hezbollah tosses in a thousand men. Surely, Assad could mobilize 18,000 local defense forces from Alawites and loyal minorities worried about the Sunni majority.
Assad would continue to control chemical weapons depots and missile assets. If Hezbollah and friendly Lebanese Shias can hold the western border of this new Minimum Syria, Assad could prepare for the long haul with Russian, Chinese, and Iranian financial support.
The long haul would reflect how we won in Iraq. Really, for a while there we held a core Iraq that was down to the Green Zone in Baghdad, the Kurdish region, and the southern Shia region (with due allowance made for the tenuous nature of that control because of Sadr's militias). We held outposts as we fought for the central region (the Sunni Triangle) and relied on air strikes and later ground sweeps in Anbar, because we had too few American troops to fight for control of the entire country.
Over time, as Iraq's security forces increased, we started to fight for more territory in Anbar and finally locked down that province with the Awakening and captured the Sunni Triangle and Baghdad (fighting pro-Iranian Shias, too) with the surge of our forces and a similar Sunni awakening in the center. Later, Iraqi forces tackled Sadr's militias in the south. Without our forces, Iraq is still fighting terrorists, but it is not beyond their capacity to fight and keep them from threatening the government.
Assad would have to similarly hold his core, rebuild his army's numbers, use air power and ground raids into rebel territory to keep the rebels off balance, and then begin expanding areas of control as he gains the numbers to do so.
Assad has a problem in that he can't count on a foreign patron to supply a surge of trained forces as Iraq's government could count on America in 2007. He also has a problem in that his forces rely on a minority of the population rather than the majority (80-90% Shia and Kurd) that the Iraqi government could rely on.
Assad would need to engineer at least a partial awakening by using divide and conquer diplomacy with Sunnis who fear al Qaeda more than they fear a deal with Assad. Perhaps the Kurds could be won over with promises of autonomy.
And perhaps with enough chaos in the abandoned parts of Syria, Assad could even count on Western and regional forces to move in and fight al Qaeda. Even if foreign troops move in just for humanitarian or WMD reasons, the possibility that mission creep will take place as jihadis attack foreign troops (the temptation will be great for al Qaeda types) could turn foreign troops into de facto allies against the jihadis, or at least weaken the jihadi fight against Assad's forces by spreading jihadi attention.
Assad could still win this fight. But he has to retreat until the correlation of forces can be swung back in his favor. Assad just can't win the way he is fighting, now.