Assad has lost a good chunk of his territory so far this year:
Territory fully controlled by President Assad’s forces has shrunk by 18% between 1 January and 10 August 2015 to 29,797 km2, roughly a sixth of the country, according to the latest data insights produced by IHS Conflict Monitor.
In a recently televised speech, President Assad admitted it was necessary to focus on holding certain areas of greater strategic importance, while sacrificing others. The key areas which Assad cannot afford to lose include the capital Damascus, the Alawite coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartous, and the city of Homs as the vital connection between them. These are likely to be defended, even at the expense of losing other major cities like Aleppo or Dar’a.
Jane's provides a map:
[Minutes after I sent a message that uploading wasn't working, it worked.]
This is essentially down to the Core Syria that I wrote Assad had to contract to in order to build an army capable of regaining control of all of Syria.
But being forced back to this area after suffering simply astounding levels of casualties among his troops is not the same as contracting before suffering the casualties and preparing for an offensive.
And yes, fighting for Aleppo was a bridge too far for Assad.
At this point, because of the massive casualties, holding Core Syria is just a temporary line before retreating to Rump Syria in the northwest.
And I did wonder if Assad was trying to prepare his supporters for such a contraction.
So I think we should watch for a move by Assad to legally shift the capital from Damascus to the coast. That way, no matter how little territory Assad holds, he will still be in charge of legal Syria and thus hold the UN seat and all the legitimacy that comes with that status.
I think Assad will ultimately attempt to hold a Rump Syria based on the coast but pushed inland for a buffer zone to Homs in the southeast of that territory and up the main north-south highway from Hama and up to positions as close to Idlib as they can hold.
This will provide an inland buffer zone to help protect his core supporters. It will retain the coast so Russia can have a naval base. And it will retain overland access to Lebanon to keep even a Rump Syria useful for Iran.
Ideally, the new safe zone in the north will allow non-jihadi rebels to control that area. And ideally Southern Front rebels with Western, Jordanian, and Israeli support can advance to Damascus to control the south.
ISIL, unfortunately, would control the rest until the non-jihadi rebels can be strengthened to expand their control at the expense of both ISIL and al Qaeda and Assad, too.
Unless Assad's military simply collapses under the strain before Assad can order a retreat.
If Assad can't defend the territory he has with the troops he has, the only logical way to avoid defeat is to contract his territory to a size his military can hold.
And do it before his military is too exhausted to hold anything.
UPDATE: Is it too late for Assad to retreat to his corner of Syria?
A growing number of soldiers and civilians in government-controlled areas of Syria are expressing rare public disaffection with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Noncombatants as well as the military in traditionally loyal coastal regions are complaining that not enough is being done to relieve enclaves besieged by rebels.
The defeat at Tabqa--the first besieged enclave to fall--has clearly shaken Assad's supporters.
If Assad's fate rests on his ability to relieve multiple besieged enclaves, he's in trouble.
Retreating to Rump Syria may be Assad's best-case outcome at this point. It probably won't be his last stop.
UPDATE: ISIL is putting pressure on Damascus:
The Islamic State group battled Syrian rebel forces in a Damascus neighbourhood on Monday, bringing the jihadists closer than ever to the centre of the capital, a monitoring group said.
We'll see how long it takes for Damascus to become a besiegec enclave, too.