While in recent weeks Western attention has shifted from Syria to Ukraine, some critical battles between Assad and the opposition appear to be unfolding at this very moment. And while it is early days yet, there are signs things are going significantly worse for Assad than expected, in a way that may well influence events in Syria for months to come.
A quick recap. For several months Syria has now known a virtual stalemate between regime and opposition forces (who have also been increasingly divided internally, with pretty much all opposition forces fighting the radicals of “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham”). To be sure, fighting has continued throughout these months, but not much significant territory appears to have changed hands. The last truly significant battle was in June 2013, over a town on the northern Lebanese border named Qusayr. In that battle, forces from Hezbollah and the Syrian army managed (despite some heavy casualties) to take Qusayr from the rebels, thus cutting off an important rebel supply line out of northern Lebanon. It was this battle that managed to turn around Assad’s fortunes from steady losses to a stalemate, or even a slight regime advantage.
[image: location of Al Qusayr, on the northern Lebanese-Syrian border]
Flash forward to the present. Despite having taken Qusayr in the north, Assad still faces some other important rebel strongholds on the Lebanese border (see the green areas below). In particular, rebels have maintained a strong presence to the south of Qusayr, in an area close to Damascus known as the Qalamoun mountain range. Qalamoun has been important not just for Assad’s attempts to survive in Syria. For Hezbollah in Lebanon, too, the rebel presence in Qalamoun has long been a nasty thorn in the side. The Qalamoun mountains on the Syrian-Lebanese border provide the rebels access to the Lebanese city of Arsal. Hezbollah suspects rebels use this corridor through Arsal to dispatch suicide bombers to Hezbollah’s strongholds in Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon.
[image: the situation in Syria. Note the green (indicating rebel-controlled) Qalamoun area on the Lebanese border]
Given the strategic importance of Qalamoun both to Assad and Hezbollah, the two parties have over the last few months launched a massive combined assault in order to decisively defeat the rebels there. If successful, this would allow the regime to completely isolate Lebanon from the rebellion in the Syrian theater. The first phase of this operation took place in November 2013, and saw the Syrian army take, among other villages, the important town of Al-Nabakh on the Damascus-Homs highway. Since then Qalamoun has appeared relatively calm, with the rebels still in control of significant territory. In recent weeks, however, Assad and Hezbollah have restarted their offensive (click picture below to enlarge), centering on the most important remaining rebel bastion: Yabroud.
[Image: Assad/Hezbollah offensive on Qalamoun. Fighting centers on Rima Farms and Al-Sahel, with the objective of Yabroud]
But so far things appear not to be going well for Assad and his Hezbollah allies. Initially Syrian media reported the regime conquest of Al-Sahel and Rima Farms, just north of Yabroud. Since then, however, it seems the rebels have been able to counter-attack, and now appear positively on the offensive. Moreover, the youtube footage and social media messaging coming out of the Qalamoun theater largely shows convoys of Assad and Hezbollah materiel being shot up with new, relatively advanced guided anti-tank rockets, among them the Russian Konkurs and Metis systems. Lots of heavy regime equipment appears to be lost. To be sure, the battle for Yabroud is yet in its early days, and may still produce an Assad victory. Indeed, given its heavy involvement (the number of Hezbollah fighters is rumored to be up to 15.000) it is hard to imagine Hezbollah tolerating anything less than a decisive victory so close to its heartland. Still, at this point the easy victory the regime initially envisaged seems far off.
And Qalamoun is not the only area where things appear to be going sour for Assad. Unexpectedly, it seems, Assad’s offensive in Qalamoun has coincided with an Islamist offensive (“Dawn of Spring”) south of the Qalamoun mountains, on the Syrian-Israeli border around Quneitra. Again, footage uploaded to youtube and discussions on social media appear to show Assad’s forces in deep trouble. Various regime bases in the Quneitra countryside (those of the SAA’s 60th and 91st Brigades, for example) have fallen (GRAPHIC) to the Islamist rebels, accompanied by the now familiar gruesome images (GRAPHIC). In turn, convoys of Assad reinforcements are shown destroyed or fleeing in disarray. Again, Assad may yet be able to turn the Quneitra battle around in the coming weeks. But at present, his forces would seem spread thin dealing with Qalamoun and Quneitra simultaneously.
Indeed, the problems in Qalamoun and Quneitra still do not spell the end of trouble for Assad. On Syria’s Jordanian border Assad is facing what is perhaps the most worrisome and long-term trouble of all: an offensive (“Geneva Houran”) by the reinvigorated Free Syrian Army, now actively supported and coordinated by a Saudi/Jordanian/US alliance.
As was reported a few weeks ago, it seems the Saudis and Jordanians have finally succeeded in goading the US out of its apathetic attitude with regards to the Syrian rebels. In particular, two factors have prompted the US to take a more activist stance: the crumbling of the FSA among Syria’s rebels in the north, and the fact–painfully clear in the recent Geneva negotiations–that absent genuine military pressure Assad is unlikely to accept meaningful compromise. As a consequence, the US has now agreed to give Syria’s moderate rebels, concentrated around the southern cities of Daraa and Khirbet Ghazela, access to relatively advanced weapons, in particular the afore-mentioned Konkurs anti-tank missile systems and so-called “MANPADS”: shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Experts have noted that such weapon systems may significantly alter the FSA’s military position vis-a-vis Assad’s forces.
In sum, after months of stalemate, Assad now seems to confront something of a perfect storm of potentially disastrous military problems, doubly threatening since they all directly affect the Damascus area: Qalamoun from the north-west, Quneitra from the south-west, and Daraa from the south. (Ironically, Aleppo in the north, which for months seemed desperate for Assad, appears now to be divided between warring rebels, and hence to be looking more favorable for Assad’s army). Unless Hezbollah proves capable of quickly improving Assad’s fortunes, like in Qusayr, it seems both pro-Iranian parties may be in deep trouble–Hezbollah suffering a humiliating setback against its Islamist rivals, and Assad perhaps finally forced to accept painful compromise.