assessments

In Syria, Loyalist Forces Are Spread Thin and Looking for Victory

6 MINS READDec 24, 2014 | 10:00 GMT
(KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Rebel fighters fight pro-government forces for control of the Handarat region, located just north of Aleppo, on December 18, 2014.
Summary

The Syrian military is making impressive progress in its attempts to regain control of Aleppo. The rebels are putting up a determined defense and have launched a large number of counterattacks, but they have been unable to halt the military's advance in the province. This offensive, though long and arduous, is now nearly a siege on the rebels in Aleppo city.

Despite the progress made against the rebels in Aleppo, it is important to note that the loyalist forces still face significant threats on other fronts of the Syrian civil war, particularly in Idlib, Daraa, and Deir el-Zour. It would be difficult for the loyalists to secure a victory through progress on only one front, and the threats and reversals they face on other fronts are stressing their already overstretched forces.

Idlib

Though the government controls Idlib city, rebels in the province pose one of the biggest threats to loyalist forces. Rebels have been able to effectively shut down the M5 highway leading to Aleppo, forcing loyalist fighters to carve out another supply line through much more rugged terrain to sustain their offensive. There are a large number of isolated and besieged loyalist positions in Idlib, and loyalist forces have had to expend considerable manpower to try to break through the M5 corridor that leads to Aleppo in an attempt to relieve these stranded troops.

Occupied Areas in Syria

Furthermore, Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies in Ahrar al-Sham have scored several major victories against loyalist forces in Idlib over the past few weeks. The fall of loyalist bases in Wadi Deif and Hamadiyah on Dec. 14 following a nine-month siege was a considerable blow. Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham managed to seize dozens of armored personnel carriers and main battle tanks from the bases, as well as large numbers of artillery pieces, vehicles, missiles, tank shells, ammunition and fuel. More importantly, the thousands of rebel fighters that had been busy besieging the bases are now available for use elsewhere.

There are already reports of heavy rebel movements toward the besieged Abu al-Duhur air base on the border between Idlib and Aleppo. The estimated 500 soldiers still in the base now find themselves at serious risk of being overrun. Furthermore, there are indications that Jabhat al-Nusra could cut the only supply line to Idlib, which runs through Jisr al-Shughour and Ariha from Lattakia. Loyalist attempts to advance up the M5 highway have been seriously undermined, and they risk losing further positions across Idlib province. Moreover, there are still a large number of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham fighters that could be dispatched to Aleppo to reinforce their beleaguered comrades against loyalist forces.

Daraa

Daraa province, which has long been firmly under loyalist control, has steadily come under increasing threat over the past two years. Of particular note is the strength of the Free Syrian Army in the region, which works under the umbrella effort known as the Southern Front. Unlike their Free Syrian Army comrades in the north and east, the more moderate rebels in the south have held their own and have steadily increased their power in Quneitra and Daraa. They have benefited greatly from short supply lines into Jordan and from a considerable amount of external support from the West and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The Free Syrian Army is not the only faction with a presence in Daraa, however. Ever since the Islamic State drove Jabhat al-Nusra from Deir el-Zour, a significant number of the al Qaeda-affiliated fighters have made their way to Daraa, where they have maintained relatively friendly ties with the Free Syrian Army operatives. Together these forces have scored significant battlefield victories, claiming more than 80 percent of Quneitra from loyalists, increasing pressure on loyalist forces in Daraa city, seizing important towns and military bases including those around Nawa, and fighting off loyalist assaults in Sheikh Miskin despite considerable Hezbollah support.

Though the rebels continue to seize considerable territory in southern Daraa, their progress has been slowed by the militarized nature of the region. Daraa and Quneitra have been heavily fortified since before the Syrian civil war because of their position as gateways to Damascus from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. These bases and military positions have played a key role in slowing down the rebels. Nevertheless, the rebels are undeniably making progress, and the government is well aware that they could break through to the besieged rebel pockets in Rif Damascus, undermining its massive effort to contain the rebels in eastern and western Ghouta. To avoid such a scenario, the government will have to continue devoting considerable attention and resources to ensuring the rebels in the south do not break through and threaten the capital once more.

Deir el-Zour

The Islamic State has seized the vast majority of Deir el-Zour province in eastern Syria. The government however continues to maintain a considerable military presence in Deir el-Zour city, including in the airport and military bases. Despite the considerable logistical problems that arise from supplying their largely isolated forces in Deir el-Zour, the Syrian Arab Army continues to exert great effort to secure and expand their control in the province.

The loyalists recently dispatched the 104th Republican Brigade to Deir el-Zour, bolstering the offensive capabilities of the forces in the area. The 104th brigade proceeded to launch a series of successful attacks that threatened the Islamic State's hold on the city. In the last weeks however, the Islamic State has responded by bringing in thousands of reinforcements from other parts of Syria and from Iraq's Anbar province for a powerful counterattack. The move resulted in intense fighting between the two sides. The Islamic State is now pushing its way to the edge of the Deir el-Zour airport but finding it difficult to break through the determined Republican Guard defenses. Intense fighting will likely continue as both sides bring in reinforcements.  

An Islamic State victory in Deir el-Zour would devastate loyalist forces for many reasons. First, the Syrian government has been vocal about the fight for Deir el-Zour, and the battle has figured prominently in the media. If the government loses its hold on the city, the loyalists would suffer a significant blow to morale, especially following their devastating loss in Raqqa. Second, the Syrian government has already allocated significant resources to the battle, including considerable aviation assets and most importantly some of its best and most capable military units. The destruction of these units, which would be absolute given the difficulty of issuing a cohesive retreat from such an isolated area, would be nothing less than catastrophic. Finally, the 104th Republican Brigade consists of large numbers of Druze soldiers. The demise of such a large number of Druze soldiers could seriously undermine the government's already contentious relationship with the minority community. For all these reasons, loyalists will fight hard to avoid defeat, but the fight will utilize valuable resources that are needed elsewhere.

Loyalists will concentrate on solidifying a victory in Aleppo despite their limited resources. However, fighting in other areas — particularly in Idlib, Daraa and Deir el-Zour — will make victory across the board difficult to attain and will render it incomplete. Nevertheless, a victory in Aleppo would provide a much needed morale boost for loyalist fighters, who face discouraging odds on other fronts. Threats on multiple fronts have made it difficult for loyalist forces to strike a single, significant blow on any one front and have compounded their shortage of resources.

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