Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Whole New War

Assad is largely backed into the western-most part of Syria, controlling about a third of the population, but he thinks he can win the war he is in.

Although you wouldn't expect Assad to say anything else if he wants to keep his troops fighting and his supporters backing him despite the heavy casualties and growing poverty, Assad does seem confident he can win the war he has:

The Assad government openly declares confidence in final victory. With most of the world united against ISIL and Russian support is still substantial (despite officially “withdrawing from Syria”) the government believes they can deal with the non-ISIL rebels. This includes making some sort of deal with the Kurds. The Assads are also taking advantage of the continuing feuds between various Islamic terrorist groups. ISIL and al Nusra are notorious for their tendency to fight other Islamic terrorist groups that won’t submit to their orders.

Recall that I said more than three years ago that Assad needed a whole new war in order to emerge victorious, holding a core Syria he can clear and defend, and then expanding out as troop numbers come on line, the way we did in Iraq:

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.

Assad has been doing that.

Assad has made strides in clearing and holding the core from the coast down to the capital, with only contested terrain and isolated outposts outside that core, at best.

Assad has used firepower to punish civilians who support the rebels and drive them from Syria to take them out of the equation.

Assad has had an "awakening" of sorts that relies on fear of ISIL and al Qaeda exceeding fear of Assad. The Kurds are now fighting ISIL, if not for Assad, and they will not do much beyond their ethnic territory to take down Assad.

Even America has been partially "flipped" to fight ISIL and al Qaeda, which helps Assad.

And Assad has not rebuilt his ground forces. He has more militia than regulars. And while he got outside support, it was not in the numbers that America provided Iraq's new government. It has been enough to avoid defeat but it has not won the war.

So Assad got his whole new war, which allowed him to survive.

At the cost of 400,000 dead and counting, but oh well.

But the big problem I highlighted remains. Assad doesn't have the manpower to control the entire country.

Iran and Hezbollah provide shock troops to spearhead attacks.

And Russia provides special forces and firepower.

But otherwise, Assad's ground forces are pretty sparse. And they've taken heavy casualties already just trying to hold a core Syria. Taking and holding Aleppo will be a strain, let alone expanding south to the Jordanian and Israeli borders and east to control the Kurds and the borders out to Iraq.

More than three years ago I wondered if Assad's forces could endure the casualties needed to win.

Today, it is clear they could endure to now, but they have not won the war.

And how long will the morale of Hezbollah and Iran accept casualties to sustain the Assad regime, even in just Assad's corner of Syria?

A rebel onslaught on the town of Khan Touman near Aleppo last week delivered one of the biggest battlefield setbacks yet to the coalition of foreign Shi'ite fighters waging war on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

Reports put the death toll among the Iranian, Afghani and Lebanese militiamen as high as 80 in the attack spearheaded by the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. At least 17 of the dead were Iranians, seemingly the highest toll in a battle outside the Islamic Republic’s borders since the Iran-Iraq war.

Hezbollah has lost 1,200 dead, it seems, in their campaign. Which is a high amount for such a small force.

And if the shock troops of Assad's army are unwilling to fight and die, how will the battered majority of Assad's Syrian forces hold up when they don't get the outside support they've relied on?

One security expert close to Damascus described low morale on the government side because hard-won territory had been lost.

So the question of whether Assad's forces can endure the additional casualties needed to win is still unanswered. The war outcome is still in doubt.

And then there is the question of whether John Kerry will save the Assad regime, which is Assad's only hope in the long run, really, even if Assad formally leaves office while leaving the Assad regime in place, thus allowing Kerry to pretend we--and the Syrian people--won something out of all this carnage.