In January 2012, Assad had too few loyal troops to contain the resistance. I figured Assad had to contract to hold a core Syria and then rebuild his army to retake the abandoned zones.
Assad seemed doomed. Yes, Assad's forces regained the initiative for a while with substantial Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah help; plus a faux chemical weapons deal with us that lifted the threat of American air strikes against Assad and real support for rebels. But even then I figured the odds were against Assad winning.
And now Assad is again clearly losing. He can't ignore the manpower issue that formed the basis of my early conviction that he has a poor hand:
In a remarkably frank assessment of the strains afflicting the Syrian military after more than four years of conflict, Assad said the type of war confronting Syria meant the army could not fight everywhere for risk of losing vital ground.
"Sometimes, in some circumstances, we are forced to give up areas to move those forces to the areas that we want to hold onto," Assad said in a televised speech. "We must define the important regions that the armed forces hold onto so it doesn't allow the collapse of the rest of the areas." ...
Assad said the idea behind giving up territory was to allow for later counter-attacks. "From a military point of view, holding to this area, or that patch, would lead to the recovery of the other areas."
Right now he controls a quarter of the territory and half the population. But who is still willing to defend it after the brutal level of casualties Assad's allies have suffered so far?
Is this statement preparing Syrians for further territorial contraction as recent events seemed to telegraph?
So what about the fight for Palmyra? Holding that ground shields Damascus.
Is that part of the smaller realm Assad intends to focus limited troops on? Perhaps his statement is just to prepare to abandon outposts in the north, east, and south?
Or is it a temporary objective to shield a withdrawal from Damascus and points south to a core Alawite realm?
Three and a half years ago, a decision to contract his realm might have allowed Assad to rebuild and retake Syria.
But now I think Assad has suffered too many casualties to hold without significant outside help (Gosh, where would Iran get the cash for that? And would Russia commit troops for at least a symbolic presence? Would Kerry rescue Assad with another stupid diplomatic deal?) and perhaps plentiful use of chemical weapons to terrorize enemies into a ceasefire.
UPDATE: If Assad is planning to contract his defense perimeter, what is he doing fighting for distant Hasakah?
Syrian troops and Kurdish fighters ousted the Islamic State group from Hasakeh on Tuesday, more than a month after the jihadists attacked the northeastern city, a monitoring group said.
It makes no sense to fight for a city that must lie well outside any core Syria.
This only makes sense if Assad cut a deal to help the Kurds take the city--denying it to ISIL--and allow Syrian troops to gain refuge in Kurdish territory and be flown out to reinforce the core region. The Kurds do seem to control more of the city after pushing ISIL out than they did before ISIL attacked.
UPDATE: When Assad says he needs to conserve troops for more vital ground, this is it:
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict using contacts on the ground, said Syrian warplanes had carried out more than 160 air strikes on the plain and in the nearby Idlib countryside to try to disrupt the insurgents' progress towards key Assad territory.
The insurgents, who have entered at the northern tip of the plain, can use their anti-tank missiles to target Syrian army tank positions, giving them some advantages over flat ground, a diplomat tracking Syria said.
Most of Idlib province was captured earlier this year in a major advance by the insurgent grouping "Army of Conquest" against government forces.
But I've yet to see a decision to give up isolated outposts to make the focus real.
As an aside, that's a lot of air strikes in one day for Assad's air force.
UPDATE: Backed by 270 air strikes over 4 days, Syrian forces regained some ground:
The Syrian army and allied militia have regained control over several northwestern villages from insurgents on a plain crucial for defending costal areas that Damascus holds, a group monitoring the war said on Saturday.
The allied militia is not identified. Hezbollah is usually identified as such. And Syrian militias are not accurately termed "allied." So I assume this must refer to Iran's Shia foreign legion that they organized and pay to help Assad.