Early last month in, "The Noose Around Syria’s Assad Tightens" we outlined the latest developments in the country’s prolonged civil war. Here’s what we said then:
The US-led alliance realizes very well that as long as Assad has to fight three fronts: i.e., the Nusra Front in the northwestern province of Idlib and ever closer proximity to Syria's main infrastructure hub of Latakia, ISIS in the central part of the nation where militants recently took over the historic town of Palmyra, and the official "rebel" force in close proximity to Damascus, Assad's army will either eventually be obliterated or, more likely, mutiny and overthrow the president, putting the Ukraine scenario in play.
In short, the US and its Middle Eastern allies are simply playing the waiting game; watching for the opportune time to charge in and "liberate" Syria from whatever army manages to take Damascus first, at which point a puppet government will be promptly installed.
And make no mistake, the new, U.S.-backed regime will present itself as fiercely anti-militant and will be trotted out as Washington’s newest "partner" in the global war on terror. Of course behind the scenes the situation will likely resemble what happened in Yemen (Obama’s "model of success") where, according to one account, Abdullah Saleh and his lieutenants not only turned a blind eye to AQAP operations, but in fact played a direct role in facilitating al-Qaeda attacks even as the government accepted anti-terrorism financing from the US government.
Of course no one in Washington will care to know the details, as long as the new regime in Syria is receptive to things like piping Qatari natural gas to Europe via a long-stalled pipeline, a project which will do wonders for breaking Gazprom’s energy stranglehold and robbing Vladimir Putin of quite a bit of leverage in what is becoming an increasingly tense standoff with the EU over Ukraine.
On Sunday, Assad gave a speech in which he attempted to address concerns about the recent setbacks his army has suffered at the hands of the various groups fighting for control of the country. Here’s more from the LA Times’ Special correspondent Nabih Bulos reporting from Beirut:
Syrian President Bashar Assad delivered a sober assessment of the state of his forces on Sunday, acknowledging a manpower shortage and conceding troop withdrawals from some areas, but asserting that the military was not facing collapse.
"Are we giving up areas?" Assad asked as he posed a series of questions about the government's strategy. "Why do we lose other areas? ... And where is the army in some of the areas?"
The Syrian president endeavored to provide answers. But it was an open question whether his responses would reassure loyalists worried that the government could be losing its hold on the embattled country.
The president also thanked his allies — notably Iran — while taking the West to task for supporting “terrorists," the Syrian government's standard term for the armed opposition fighting to wrest control of the country.
The core areas under government control include the capital, Damascus, and the strategic corridor north to the cities of Homs and Hama and west to the Mediterranean coast, a pro-government stronghold.
Syrian authorities have been actively seeking to increase military recruitment in recent months, a sign of the shortage of fighters across a sprawling battlefield that stretches from the country’s northern fringes to its southern tip, and from its western borders to its eastern frontier.
In Damascus and other cities, prominent recruiting billboards depict stern-looking young men and women in full military gear exhorting others to enlist.
"Our army means all of us," declares one billboard.
Other signs posted prominently depict soldiers providing vital security for children and families.
Another billboard takes a more confrontational approach, asking a man who is watching a computer screen: "Sitting there and looking? What are you waiting for?"
The presidential speech comes as the thinly stretched Syrian army has suffered a string of setbacks in the last few months, squeezing government forces into defensive positions in Syria’s northwest and in the south.
Assad blamed the retreats on a lack of manpower, asserting that steps would need to be taken "to raise the [capacity] of the armed forces... primarily through calling the reserves in addition to recruits and volunteers."
One such step, Assad said, was the granting of an amnesty on Saturday to soldiers who had defected, so long as they had not joined armed opposition groups. The amnesty was also extended to draft dodgers, many of whom have left Syria to escape military service.
Despite conceding setbacks, Assad maintained a confident tone, insisting that Army recruitment numbers had increased in the last few months and that "there is no collapse... and we will be steadfast and will achieve the missions."
"Defeat ... does not exist in the dictionaries of the Syrian Arab army," he insisted.
Maybe not yet, but that could change quickly, especially if Assad were to lose the support of his most important ally, Vladimir Putin.
As we noted last month, the key outstanding question is this: what is the maximum pain level for Russia, which has the greatest vested interest in preserving the Assad regime?
We could have an answer to that very soon, as slumping commodities prices, falling demand from China (which was recently cited as the reason for "indefinite" delays to the Altai pipeline joint venture which would have delivered 30 bcm/y of Siberian gas to China), and economic sanctions from the West are squeezing Moscow and may ultimately prompt Putin to "consider the acceptability of other candidates" for the Syrian Presidency. Here’s WSJ with more:
And with Russia’s economy battered by a plunge in oil prices and Western sanctions, the government may be considering both the strategic and economic benefits of changing its stance on Mr. Assad.
But Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of a Kremlin foreign-policy advisory council, said Russian policy makers are likely considering possible alternatives to the Syrian president.
"They are looking at the acceptability of other candidates at this point," he said, adding that he had not heard any names.
If Moscow does provide an opening to broker a negotiated exit for Mr. Assad, it would be a dramatic turn in the conflict.
Mr. Assad’s other major international backer, Iran, shows no signs of wavering in its crucial military and financial support for the Syrian regime. But the long-sought nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers reached earlier this month has also opened up the possibility of broader political cooperation between Tehran and the West on other regional issues such as the war in Syria.
Hadi al-Bahra, a senior member of the Turkey-based opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition, said his alliance discussed Mr. Assad’s political fate with Russian officials for the first time in a meeting last month led by Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. Ahmed Ramadan, another senior coalition member, also attended that meeting in the Turkish capital Ankara.
“We have been speaking with the Russians from the very beginning and we have not heard one word of criticism of Assad," Mr. Ramadan said. "But now, the Russians are discussing the alternatives with us."
In addition to the Syrian opposition, Mr. Assad’s regional adversaries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey have argued his ouster is essential to resolve the Syrian conflict and halt the spread of Islamic State militants.
The Obama administration recently has pursued Russian cooperation on its goal of ousting the Assad regime based on intelligence assessments that the Syrian president is weakening. President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 25 and July 15 on an array of issues including Syria.
An exchange in a meeting last month between Mr. Putin and Syrian Foreign MinisterWalid al-Moallem suggested Moscow’s patience with Damascus might be running thin.
According to an official Russian transcript carried on the Kremlin’s website, Mr. Putin pointed out the regime’s recent military setbacks and suggested Mr. Assad join forces with regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Mr. Moallem said the idea was farfetched.
Russia has financial and political incentives to change course on backing Mr. Assad. The country has been politically isolated by Western sanctions. Lower oil prices and sanctions have taken a toll on the economy.
So, as the Assad regime weakens in the face of dwindling manpower and is forced to resort to a military recrutiment drive complete with billboards designed to shame men into taking up arms against the various armies competing to conquer Damascus, Russia has not only seen the writing on the wall, but may be prepared to finally cut Assad loose. As for what happens next, see here.
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Full Assad speech from Sunday