The string of military gains by the anti-government forces in Syria since mid-December continues to reveal the Assad regime’s profound weaknesses. The problem for the regime is not that it has lost a series of well-fortified garrisons but that each defeat was swift, taking anywhere between just a few hours and a couple of days.
The fall of Idlib province last month and the rebel takeover of the key Brigade 52 base in Deraa in southwestern Syria last week have revealed the military’s fragility. The Brigade 52 takeover was particularly telling because the attackers were nationalist forces, not radical groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra or ISIL, which usually overcome army defences by means of squads of suicide bombers.
The rebels’ advances in Hama and Idlib and especially the seizure of Jisr Al Shughour city in Idlib province on April 25 are very significant. They leave the regime’s Alawite heartlands in the coastal region exposed to the rebel onslaught for the first time since the start of the conflict.
Unsurprisingly, the regime has downplayed the significance of some of these gains, while Iranian general Qassem Suleimani vowed an imminent “surprise” in Syria two weeks ago. But the situation seems to be going from bad to worse for the regime. Recent losses have come where it hurts most: its support base.
Since the conflict began, Bashar Al Assad astutely ensured that Syria’s religious minorities remained loyal. But with the regime’s consistent and significant losses, protests from sections of these minorities are becoming hard to overlook or downplay.
One example of this dissatisfaction is the continuing tensions between the regime and the Druze minority in Sweida in the south-west over conscription. For months, the Druze in the city have been vocal about arrests of their religious leaders by the regime. They have also protested against the regime’s refusal to provide heavy weapons to local militias to defend the area against extremists’ attacks. This criticism peaked on Sunday when Druze leaders resisted attempts by officials to force them to encourage youngsters to join the military.
Sheikh Abu Fahad Wahid Balous, a Druze leader who has previously denounced the regime, defied Mr Al Assad’s appeal for young people in Sweida to join the army. The decree stipulates that people from Sweida will serve in their own area and will not have to fight in other provinces, a remarkable concession after months of strained relations over the issue. But Sheikh Balous still said that the Druze did not have to comply and warned against taking youngsters from their homes or at checkpoints by force.
The escalating tensions follow anger over previously broken promises that Druze youngsters would not be dispatched to fight outside their areas. Many of them were taken to Brigade 52 and there was more Druze consternation still when the army withdrew from there and into Sweida. The army subsequently refused to maintain heavy weaponry inside the province despite requests from local leaders. The killing of more than 20 Druze civilians in Idlib by Jabhat Al Nusra made the supply of better weapons especially relevant.
The refusal to join the army is part of a wider trend – even within the Alawite community. Reports consistently indicate that Alawite families are encouraging their children to leave home if they are of conscription age. This was especially obvious as the rebels edged closer to Alawite heartlands in Hama. Multiple sources report that Alawite representatives from several towns in the Ghab plain in Hama have reached out to the rebels and claimed that they are not tied to the regime. An Alawite barber in Abu Dhabi recently spoke of how his brother in Syria has been living away from his family to avoid conscription and that the family is trying to find a way for him to leave the country. An officer in the mukhabarat department, which monitors army officers, relates how the “mutiny” reached an “alarming level” after the fall of Jisr Al Shughour.
The trend compounds the challenges for the regime as the army is losing territory in much of the country – in Hasaka and Deir Ezzor to ISIL; in Idlib and Aleppo to extremist groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra, and in Deraa and Damascus to nationalist forces.
These military setbacks reverberate inside the regime’s well-protected heartlands, while all three types of anti-government forces seem to be getting stronger and more organised. Meanwhile, Mr Al Assad’s support base outside Damascus is becoming increasingly vocal that the price of war is too high and that they cannot afford to continue to pay it.
Hassan Hassan is associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
On Twitter: @hxhassan