Australia’s ABC News reports on dictator Bashar al-Assad’s “remarkably frank assessment of the strains affecting the Syrian military.” Assad used his first public address in a year to admit he has lost control of a good deal of his country, and is digging in to defend what his regime has left.
Assad’s remarks were notably devoid of the bluster normally associated with strongmen, especially in the Middle East. They are usually at pains to project strength and confidence, fearing any sign of weakness could bring further civil unrest, or even a coup attempt.
Assad may believe a bit of candor was his best bet for rallying loyal Syrians, winning a bit of international sympathy and maybe sending a distress signal to his patrons in Iran and Russia. (He has ways of communicating with them directly, of course, but narratives must still be set for every nation involved, as well as the international community.)
“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 told the Syrian people. “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.”
He mentioned his shortage of military manpower, which ABC notes is even more acute than he let on, as a conscript army of over 300,000 has been “roughly halved by deaths, defections and a rise in draft-dodging.” In a bid to replenish its forces, the Assad regime has announced the normal penalties for avoiding military service would be waived, hopefully tapping into a supply of recruits willing to fight for the Syrian government if they do not fear punishment for staying out of the fight until now.
He also threw in a jab at governments supporting various rebel factions, most notably Turkey, for engineering Syrian military defeats that left the populace in “a state of despair,” while publicly acknowledging the assistance of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah for the first time.
The Turks have not been shy about expressing their antipathy for Assad in the past, but he might be freshly irked by news that Turkey and the U.S. will work on creating a no-fly, ISIS-free safe zone along the Syrian border to assist both moderate rebel forces and refugees from the Syrian civil war. Also, knowing that Turkey recently began bombing ISIS positions on Syrian soil, Assad might be inviting them to consider what sort of neighbor an ISIS-dominated post-Assad Syria would make.
Assad nevertheless refused to admit defeat or accept some partition of Syria that would permanently cede captured territory to rebel forces or ISIS. He said counter-offensives were still being drafted to retake the areas he admits his government no longer controls. “The word ‘defeat’ does not exist in the Syrian army’s dictionary,” he declared. “We will resist, and we will win.”
In the early days of the Syrian meltdown, watching the brutal Iran-backed regime square off against al-Qaeda and a motley assortment of like-minded Islamists, many observers felt the optimum strategy was to bottle up the conflict and watch the dueling villains beat each other to a pulp. The conflict did not stay bottled up, however. ISIS flowed across the border into Iraq. A massive refugee crisis is spilling across the Middle East into Europe. As for that much-touted force of U.S.-backed “moderate” rebels, the first unit of “New Syrian Force” fighters hit the ground two weeks ago, 54 of them.