News / Middle East

Momentum Shifts Toward Syria's Assad as Election Nears

A vehicle drives past campaign posters of the June 3 presidential election in Damascus, Syria, May 12, 2014.
A vehicle drives past campaign posters of the June 3 presidential election in Damascus, Syria, May 12, 2014.
Reuters
— From his base in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad can contemplate a broad sweep of Syria clawed back from rebels who once threatened to drive him out.

The capital, which they targeted, is now plastered with posters inviting Syrians to re-elect him president.
 
Powerful foreign allies have helped Assad hold or retake a chain of cities that form the north-south backbone of the country, keep his grip on the Mediterranean coast to the west and restore control over the Lebanese border.

The culmination of that slow, grinding military turnaround came last week with the final withdrawal of rebel fighters from Homs city, a month before the presidential election in which Assad faces no serious challenge.

His foes dismiss the June 3 vote as a farce, saying the huge areas still beyond his command make a credible vote impossible, but the fact that authorities can consider a notionally countrywide ballot reveals their growing confidence.
 
One of the two candidates officially approved to run against Assad said the overwhelming majority of Syrians would be able to vote, downplaying the fighting that still kills around 200 people a day and the almost three million who have fled.
 
"In the middle of the country the situation is perfect for election. On the coast the situation is very good. In the southern part of Syria the situation is getting better," said Hassan al-Nouri, a U.S.-educated former minister of state.
 
The military respite has come at a cost. Assad's foreign Shi'ite supporters have often taken the lead in battle, leaving his own forces to play a peripheral role against rebels who are themselves increasingly directed by outside Sunni powers.
 
Whoever pulls the strings, though, the long-term momentum is clear.

Rebels still pose a challenge

In western Syria, rebels have fought Assad's forces in Homs  since the early days of the uprising in 2011. Until a year ago they held territory along the main highway from Homs to Damascus and controlled the capital's eastern and southern suburbs.
 
Now that they have pulled out of Syria's third biggest city, battered by years of bombardment, siege and retreat, Assad's hold over the heart of the country is tighter than it has ever been since protests against his rule turned to armed insurgency.
 
On the fringes, rebels still pose a deadly challenge, holding parts of Aleppo and Deraa at the northern and southern tips of that backbone of Syrian cities.
 
Most of the northern border with Turkey is also in rebel hands, as are swathes of northern Syria, the eastern oilfields and farmlands, and southern areas close to Jordanian border and the Golan Heights.
 
Assad's enemies make much of the fact that the territory under his control may only account for a third of the country, but it forms an increasingly coherent core, linked by secure road connections, where a semblances of normality exists and the great majority of the population now lives.

 
Women talk and children play around the tents of the Bab Al-Nour internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, north of Aleppo, beside the Syrian-Turkish border, May 18, 2014.Women talk and children play around the tents of the Bab Al-Nour internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, north of Aleppo, beside the Syrian-Turkish border, May 18, 2014.
x
Women talk and children play around the tents of the Bab Al-Nour internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, north of Aleppo, beside the Syrian-Turkish border, May 18, 2014.
Women talk and children play around the tents of the Bab Al-Nour internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, north of Aleppo, beside the Syrian-Turkish border, May 18, 2014.

By contrast the rebel-held land - riven with internecine fighting and battered by waves of Assad's aerial bombardment - offers neither security to the population nor a military platform to strike against his strongholds.

'Fluid stalemate'

The three-year conflict has killed at least 150,000 people, but the relentless nature of the devastation and the lack of a single frontline marked by advances and retreats means the war often seems deadlocked.

In reality multiple battles are fought on a local level, the small scale of their ebb and flow making little impact on the broader war. With the possible exception of Tartous, one of two Mediterranean strongholds of Assad's Alawite minority, not one of Syria's 14 provinces is totally controlled by either side.

"It's a fluid form of stalemate," said one military official in the region who closely monitors the Syrian conflict. "The regime holds the strategic upper hand while the rebels fight tactical battles on the fringes."
 
Assad has been helped by the multiple fractures in rebel ranks. Rival al-Qaida groups are at each others' throats and the Western-backed coalition known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been eclipsed by more Islamist brigades.
 
"Bashar has the upper hand on the ground. As long as the FSA exists he will always have the upper hand," said a fighter from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), highlighting the mutual animosity that plagues Assad's enemies.
 
ISIL, a breakaway al-Qaida faction, is battling the official al-Qaida branch in Syria, the Nusra Front. It has also clashed with the powerful Islamic Front and fighters from the FSA.
 
ISIL's rebel opponents say the group is more intent on carving out a jihadist heartland in rebel territory than it is on fighting Assad, who in turn has carefully avoided targeting ISIL in government air strikes, they say.

In his final speech to the U.N. Security Council before he steps down in despair, international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi lamented last week that there are "probably well over a thousand" rebel groups involved in Syria's complex war.
 
"Peace in Syria will not happen and be sustainable without a much more intimate understanding of the military map in Syria, and a deeper understanding of their interests, goals and potential to engage in a political process," he said. "We have not developed that understanding to a sufficiently high level."

Lebanon border sealed

Complicating the battle is the presence on both sides of thousands of foreign fighters. The mainly Sunni Muslim rebels, who are backed by Sunni regional powers, have been joined by Sunni jihadi fighters from across the world.
 
Assad, whose Alawite community is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, has been reinforced by Iraqi Shi'ite fighters and the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, and supported by Shi'ite Iran and his main arms supplier and diplomatic supporters, Russia.
 
Hezbollah's role has been crucial over the last 12 months in consolidating control over the Qalamoun region close to the Lebanese border, overlooking the road linking Damascus to Homs.
 
"Qalamoun is now completely free," said a military source close to the pro-Assad forces. "Five important towns which were the main strongholds of the gunmen are now under the control of the government."
 
Thirty crossing points with Lebanon that had been used to supply rebel arms and fighters have been sealed along 124 kilometers of border, he said, a crucial element in Assad's consolidation of power over the centre of the country.
 
A rebel offensive launched from Turkey into northern Latakia, the other Mediterranean Alawite bastion, seized ground two months ago not far from the ancestral Assad town of Qardaha, but petered out and lost most of its early gains.
 
Similarly, rebels have launched several attacks on Assad's forces around Aleppo - Syria's biggest city before much of it was reduced to ruins - but probably hold less territory there than they did after storming the city in the summer of 2012.
 
"What has been under government control still is," the military source said, describing both the rebel assaults around Aleppo and Latakia as failures.
 
The battle around Aleppo, as in most parts of the country, is far from straightforward. Fighters often have a better understanding with their foes than their brothers-in-arms.
 
"Those on the frontline are thugs and traders who are willing to sell and buy," a Nusra Front gunman said dismissively of his fellow insurgents. "Sometimes they make deals with Assad's forces, and sometimes they fight."

Barrel bombs, tunnel bombs

Assad's air force has bombarded rebel-held areas of Aleppo and other cities with barrel bombs, crude explosives packed into cylinders or barrels and rolled out of the backs of helicopters from a great height to avoid rebel fire from the ground.
 
The resulting damage is largely indiscriminate and has been condemned by rights groups and Assad's international foes who say thousands of civilians have been killed in the bombardment.
 
The United States and France have also said preliminary evidence suggests Syrian government forces have used chlorine gas in the last two months - in violation of a treaty Damascus signed up to as part of a deal to eliminate its chemical arsenal after deadly sarin attacks around Damascus in August last year.
 
Trying to level the battlefield, rebels have acquired heavy weaponry - some supplied from Gulf Arab allies and some seized from Syria's army - including sophisticated rockets and tanks.
 
Those weapons have taken a heavy toll on Assad's forces. Figures collated by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group suggest that more pro-Assad fighters (58,000) were killed than rebels (38,000) by the beginning of April.
 
Rebels have been gaining ground in the heavily militarized south, seizing army positions between the city of Deraa and the town of Quneitra close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
 
Lacking air power, they have also turned underground, detonating three huge 'tunnel bombs' under targets in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib in the last two weeks.
 
With video footage showing columns of earth flying into the sky like smoke, an Islamic Front commander said from inside Syria they would not be the last. "We will use this strategy whenever there is a target that is difficult for us to reach."

You May Like

Is Air Travel Safe?

Aviation expert says despite tragic losses of Malaysian Airlines flights 370 and 17, industry experienced lowest fatality rate in recorded history last year More

Multimedia 100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held

Activists holding rallies in Nigeria and several other countries to mark 100th day of captivity for more than 200 schoolgirls being held by Boko Haram More

Chocolate Too Bitter? Swap Sugar for Mushrooms

US food technology company develops fermentation process using mushrooms to reduce bitterness in cocoa beans, believes it will cut sugar content in candy More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Xaaji Dhagax from: Somalia
May 18, 2014 9:07 PM
Syria's battle field have demonstrated that the West and it's Arab allies' weak capabilities of militarily, strategically and politically. Russia have improved their image and influences around Arab world and Eastern Europe. Now America and Europe have got to do their home work more efficiently before engaging world affairs.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Israel Targets Gaza Supply Tunnelsi
X
July 24, 2014 4:42 AM
The Israeli military has launched a ground operation in Gaza to destroy the myriad tunnels that may have been used to smuggle weapons to Hamas. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports that could mean more hardship for the people of Gaza, who obtain some of their essential supplies through these underground passages
Video

Video Israel Targets Gaza Supply Tunnels

The Israeli military has launched a ground operation in Gaza to destroy the myriad tunnels that may have been used to smuggle weapons to Hamas. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports that could mean more hardship for the people of Gaza, who obtain some of their essential supplies through these underground passages
Video

Video MH17's 'Black Boxes' Could Reveal Crash Details

The government of Malaysia now has custody of the cockpit voice and flight data recorders from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was hit by a missile over Ukraine before crashing last week. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports, the so-called black boxes may hold information about the final minutes of the flight.
Video

Video Living in the Shadows Panel Discussion

Following a screening of the new VOA documentary, "AIDS - Living in the Shadows," at the World AIDS conference in Melbourne, a panel discussed the film and how to combat the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video US Awards Medal of Honor for Heroics in Bloodiest of Afghan Battles

U.S. combat troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, on pace to leave the country by the end of this year. But on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama took time to honor a soldier whose actions while under fire in Afghanistan earned him the Medal of Honor. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.

AppleAndroid