26 Jul 2015

Assad: Syrian regime is short of troops and losing ground

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad admits his forces are suffering from a “shortfall in human capacity” as Turkey launches airstrikes against the Islamic State group.

Syrian army soldier holds picture of Assad (Reuters)

In an outspoken assessment of the state of Syria’s four-year civil war, Assad conceded that forces loyal to his regime cannot hold on to territory across the country as it attempts to fight multiple insurgent groups.

Since March, the Syrian government has lost most of the northwestern province of Idlib to an Islamist alliance including the al Qaeda-backed Nusra Front, and important areas of the south along the border with Jordan to mainstream rebel groups of the “Southern Front”.

Islamic State insurgents seized the central city of Palmyra from the Syrian military in May.

But Assad’s army still has footholds in the northeast, the east and the south, as well as Syria’s second city Aleppo.

Syrian rebel attacks army position (Reuters)

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the Syrian government controls no more than 25 per cent of the country territorially, with the rest divided among armed groups including Islamic State, other rebel groups and Kurdish militia.

But the main government-controlled areas include major population centres like Damascus, Homs, Hama, and the coastal region forming the heartland of his Alawite sect.

In a televised speech, the president told Syrians: “Sometimes, in some circumstances, we are forced to give up areas to move those forces to the areas that we want to hold on to.

“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.

“From a military point of view, holding to this area, or that patch, would lead to the recovery of the other areas.”

He added: “Everything is available (for the army), but there is a shortfall in human capacity. Despite that, I am not presenting a dark picture.”

Assad said increased support from states backing the rebels, including Turkey, was the reason for military setbacks that had created “a state of despair” among Syrians.

Hezbollah thanked

For the first time, Assad publicly credited the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the Syrian Army, but said his ally Iran’s role was limited to sending military experts.

Some analysts think the military pressure on Assad could force a political deal that would see Assad step down.

But he struck a defiant tone, saying any political proposal for resolving the war must be based on “eliminating terrorism” – a term he has used for all the rebel forces arrayed against him.

Turkish airstrike (Reuters)

Turkish airstrikes

After showing reluctance to play an active role in the international coalition against the Islamic State insurgency, Turkey announced last week that it would let allow US-led air forces to use its air bases.

But Ankara also launches simultaneous strikes against the Kurdish separatist group PKK, allied to Syrian Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State.

Kurdish militants appeared to retaliate on Sunday, killing two Turkish soldiers with a roadside bomb.

US ambassador Brett McGurk said in Twitter posts that there was “no connection” between Turkish air strikes againts the PKK and “recent understandings to intensify US-Turkey cooperation against #ISIL”.

He added that America had “strongly condemned the #PKK’s terrorist attacks in #Turkey and we fully respect our ally Turkey’s right to self-defense”.