This analysis of the Syrian regime’s strategic objectives is adapted from the ISW report “An Army in All Corners”: Assad’s Campaign Strategy in Syria by ISW Syria Analyst Christopher Kozak published in April 2015.
May 21 Update: The recent fall of the strategic city of Palmyra to ISIS highlights the risks faced by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he attempts to counterbalance the regime’s increasingly-fraught military position with his desire to maintain an “Army in All Corners” strategy. Palmyra represented a key lynchpin in the system of remote outposts garrisoned by the regime throughout the country as a way of maintaining the appearance of a national presence while reinforcing Assad’s “own legitimacy as the only viable alternative to a failed, jihadist-dominated Syrian state.” The loss of Palmyra thus marks a major blow to the campaign designs of the Assad regime and signals that time may be running out for Assad’s plan to garner international support as the only effective anti-ISIS actor on the ground.
The military campaign of the Syrian regime has been primarily driven by Assad’s core objective to preserve his rule in a post-war Syria through a negotiated “political solution.” However, Assad’s efforts to drive the situation on the ground in a favorable direction faced a number of key challenges. The geographic dispersion of regime positions and the countrywide scope of the Syrian Civil War forced the Assad regime to prioritize among military fronts in 2014, enabling opposition forces to advance in multiple locations including Idlib and Dera’a Provinces. Salafi-jihadist rebel groups also grew in strength and coordination in 2014. The regime faced new challenges on the battlefield as the consolidation of military strength among JN, Ahrar al-Sham, and other Salafi-jihadist factions in Syria throughout 2014 enabled numerous major battlefield victories over the regime in Aleppo, Idlib, and Dera’a Provinces.
However, these developments also sparked new opportunities for Assad to align with the international community by fueling the narrative that the Syrian government faces an invasion of ‘terrorists’ that poses a transnational threat. Assad promoted this framing of the conflict in order to reinforce his own political legitimacy as the only viable alternative to a failed, jihadist-dominated Syrian state. Assad likely reasons that by avoiding decisive defeat and preserving his presence throughout the country, the insurgency will eventually be depleted as opposition forces grow increasingly radicalized and alienated from their domestic and international supporters.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Visits Troops in Jobar
Maintaining Syrian Territorial Integrity
The Assad regime prioritizes maintaining Syrian Arab Army (SAA) presence throughout Syria in order to frame its claim to a united and contiguous post-war Syrian state. President Assad expressly delineated this policy in his January 2015 interview with Foreign Affairs, stating: “If you look at a military map now, the Syrian army exists in every corner. Not every place; by every corner, I mean north, south, east, west, and between. If you didn't believe in a unified Syria, that Syria can go back to its previous position, you wouldn't send the army there as a government.” The strategy of an “army in all corners” is designed to preclude a partitioned Syria or rump Syrian state from forming. The existence of SAA formations across Syria also provides President Assad with a political narrative as the leader of a sovereign and undivided country. Assad is unable, however, to use his dispersed footprint to establish security throughout the country in the face of an active armed opposition.
Assad’s remote outposts incur risk to his campaign. Their strict defensive posture and inability to project force into their surroundings makes them targetable by opposing forces. Limited options for reinforcement and resupply can leave their garrisons isolated and vulnerable in the face of concerted offensives. This risk was brutally demonstrated in July and August 2014 when ISIS militants overran a series of holdout regime military bases in ar-Raqqa and Hasaka Provinces, capturing and executing hundreds of SAA soldiers. Nevertheless, these strongholds also frequently withstand enemy attacks, providing the Assad regime with staying power at little cost. The besieged Wadi al-Deif and al-Hamidiyah military bases in southern Idlib Province, for example, fixed opposition forces for nearly two years before being overrun in a joint Jabhat al-Nusra (JN)–Ahrar al-Sham (HASI) operation in December 2014. Ultimately, this element of regime strategy fails when outposts are isolated and overwhelmed. This trend may accelerate in 2015 amidst increasing coordination between mainly-Islamist opposition forces.
Dominating Human Terrain
The Assad regime also seeks to maintain its control over the Syrian civilian population in order to bolster its image as the only legitimate governance structure in the country. President Assad has repeatedly stated that the most critical battle in Syria is the one for the Syrian people. Assad also detailed this policy in his interview with Foreign Affairs: “Before talking about winning territory, talk about winning the hearts and minds and the support of the Syrian people. That’s what we have won. What’s left is logistical; it’s technical. That is a matter of time.” Experts estimate that the Syrian regime controls between 55 and 72 percent of the Syria’s remaining populace as of January 2015. The Syrian opposition, on the other hand, controls less than a third of the country’s population – affirming President Assad’s boast that “the communities which embraced terrorists have become very small.” Assad did not mention that the remainder of Syria’s population now lies within areas under the regime’s control as a deliberate outcome of Assad’s own punitive depopulation campaigns.
On the ground, this rhetoric translates into an extremely lethal form of population-centric counter-insurgency (COIN) in areas under opposition control. The Syrian regime inflicts mass punishment against civilians in opposition areas to force large-scale displacement. Regime ground forces besiege rebel-held neighborhoods and cities, cutting off aid supplies and spurring thousands to flee to regime zones of control in the face of starvation. Civilians in opposition-held zones are also subject to indiscriminate targeting by artillery, airstrikes, and crudely-devised “barrel bombs.” By March 2015, these barbaric methods had killed more than 220,000 Syrians and displaced over 11.5 million civilians, mainly from opposition-held terrain. In sum, the concentration of the Syrian population in territory controlled by Assad comes in large part as the result of a humanitarian crisis generated by the regime itself.
Syrian Defense Minister Fahd al-Freij
This disparity offers the Assad regime several distinct advantages over rebel forces. Control over the majority of the surviving Syrian population provides opportunity to tap manpower reserves to aid the regime’s fight and also restricts civilians from joining the Syrian opposition. The regime also benefits from enduring economic activity that generally no longer exists in rebel-held areas. Continuous efforts to depopulate opposition-held zones and consolidate civilians into regime-held areas feed into the narrative that “the majority of the Syrian people…support their president.” This argument manipulates Syria’s recent history and portrays the staying power of Bashar al-Assad and his government favorably in political negotiations. Acceptance of this statement at face value risks legitimizing mass violence against civilians as a tool which could be used in other conflicts.
Projecting Domestic and International Legitimacy
The regime uses the appearance of enduring military and social control in Syria to bolster domestic and international legitimacy in preparation to discuss political settlement. Assad regularly uses “jihadism” in Syria as an argument to curry international favor. In an interview conducted on November 28, 2014, President Assad criticized U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against ISIS in Syria by insisting that “terrorism cannot be destroyed from the air, and you cannot achieve results on the ground without land forces.” Regime officials regularly promote the SAA as the only realistic force with the “experience in the field” to counter terrorist groups operating in Syria, such as JN or ISIS Assad reaffirmed in a later interview on January 20, 2015 that this partner “definitely…has to be Syrian troops.” In some cases, Assad backs his claims with force. The Syrian Air Force, for example, conducted several sorties against the ISIS “capital” of ar-Raqqa in a move clearly designed to align with the global anti-terrorism campaign following the launch of anti-ISIS coalition air raids in Syria on September 22, 2014.
The regime also attempts to maintain vestiges of democratic processes in order to underscore the claims of legitimacy made by the Syrian government. The 2014 Syrian presidential elections were widely held by regime officials as an expression of mass popular support for the Syrian government despite pervasive indications of fraud and voter suppression. The Assad regime retains a “tolerated” internal opposition group, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), which provides a façade of political pluralism. On January 26, 2015, regime officials even traveled to Moscow to hold talks with NCCDC members. The NCCDC possesses no representation from either the exiled Syrian National Coalition (SNC) opposition government or the armed Syrian opposition on the ground. The delegations unsurprisingly agreed on most of the key building blocks of the regime’s political strategy, including the maintenance of Syrian unity and sovereignty, the importance of combating terrorism, and the necessity of a political settlement.
The Assad regime’s political goals generated a military strategy which remained relatively consistent throughout 2014 and into 2015 despite shifts in battlefield dynamics which forced the regime to adapt to new circumstances. These disruptions, including unexpected rebel successes in southern Syria and the withdrawal of thousands of allied Iraqi Shi’a fighters from Damascus following the fall of Mosul in June 2014, have often sparked key inflection points in the campaign for Syria. These shifts forced the regime to adapt its capabilities frequently, but they have rarely altered the ways in which regime forces have attempted to carry out the war. This resiliency indicates that the Assad regime possesses a coherent military strategy that has been robust enough to absorb the pressures of unanticipated events. Assad likely believes that upholding this clear plan of action while avoiding unnecessary risks on the battlefield will allow him to win the war for Syria without an outright military victory.
Next installment: The Regime's Military Capabilities: Part 1--The Syrian Army, Paramilitaries, and Asymmetric Capabilities