This week, the Syrian army secured the much-contested area of Qalamoun near the main highway between Homs and Damascus. It was a strategic win, a key avenue for transporting goods and personnel to the capital. With the apparent military gains, we asked military analyst Omar Lamrani of Stratfor to weigh in on the current state of the Assad regime.
Syria Deeply: What is the government’s overall position? How much support is it still getting from its international allies?
Omar Lamrani: The regime seems to be on an upswing. There were questions about how long the war economy will hold, and how much support they will continue to receive from abroad.
We’re still seeing the Iranians fully involved and the Russians maintaining diplomatic cover and transporting arms into Syria, and activity from foreign militias. Before the foreigners were coming in to fight on the opposition’s side, and now those numbers are almost being matched by militias fighting for the regime. The most famous case is Hezbollah, which sent thousands of fighters to Qalamoun, and also the Abu Fadel al-A’bass Battalion, which is increasingly getting fighters from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The regime still maintains a lot of external support, and then it has the support of its own forces and the National Defense Forces, and that recent support has really allowed it to go on offense against the rebels. The opposition had been expecting a lot of aid from the West, which never really came through, although they still got antitank guided missiles and funding from the Gulf. So they are not exactly facing imminent defeat, but they are on the back foot. They continue to make a few gains in the south and in Deir Ezzor, but overall they are on the strategic defensive.
SD: What is the regime’s current military situation? Where is it concentrating its efforts?
OL: Basically what we have right now is that the regime is staging two big offenses: Qalamoun and then around Aleppo.
Aleppo, which has looked really good for the opposition, was encircled by the regime this summer: the rebels had the city encircled in the summer and now their siege is broken. The regime offensive has focused on secondary roads, then they took over a big chemical weapons plant and reached Aleppo in force. Now they’ve made it to the outskirts of Aleppo city itself, and though there were always regime soldiers in Aleppo, they’re now fighting on those outskirts with reinforcements that they’ve brought in.
At the same time, they also have this big Qalamoun offensive. The Qalamoun region hasn’t in itself fallen, but the regime has taken Qarah, in the northern part, and then Deir Atiyah, and then an-Nabk, a big city formerly under rebel control. This fight is very important because the Qalamoun mountains overlook the main highway from Damascus to Homs, which enables the free flow of goods and war materials for the regime in this area. Also, the highway is going to be a key avenue in the transporting of chemical weapons to Latakia and Tartus.
But you still have Yabroud and other heavily mountainous areas under rebel control. Rebels recently retook Maaloula, and there are still have strikes from that region by the rebels. Both sides are well aware this is going to take some time, and it will be a tough battle of attrition. But the regime is doing well in the opening scenes of this battle, and it comes alongside regime gains in Aleppo.
There are allegations that the rebels are doing badly solely because of their disunity, which allowed the regime to take advantage of them and strike them when they were still fighting over things like who gets which weapons.
SD: Where is the regime taking the biggest hit right now?
OL: The one thing really hit recently was the regime’s oil supply. Oil production is already doing badly, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS just took over another big field in Deir Ezzor, which cuts back all the oil production in Syria. The vast majority of oil barrels being used right now come from abroad, from Iran.
SD: It’s been said that if Assad holds the Homs-Damascus highway, he can hold his current position for years to come. Would the current economy support that assertion? What is the regime’s financial situation today?
OL: The Syrian pound has stabilized, which affects the opinion that the regime might be doing well in the field. There’s the official exchange rate and then there’s the black market exchange rate, and the black market exchange rate is how people perceive the value of the pound. And it has stabilized, that rate, which means there is a growing belief in Syria that the regime is doing well. There’s a steady flow of goods into the [regime-held] parts of the country. So there’s ups and downs, but it doesn’t seem like there will be a breakdown in the war economy in the coming months. It’s holding steady.
SD: With a major ongoing offense in Qalamoun and fighting around the rest of the country, how stretched is Assad’s army?
OL: I wouldn’t say it’s stretched to breaking point, though if you compare the army now versus before the conflict, it’s a shadow of its former self. It’s relying on militias and auxiliary national defense forces. You often see them in the field with mismatched uniforms and mismatched equipment, which points to a force that’s not exactly professional.
But they’re still able to use their artillery, their tanks. The air force has suffered, but it’s still there an operating. Overall attrition is definitely affecting the military, but that’s compensated by the adamance of the militias and auxiliary troops. The bad thing for Syria as a whole, as the regime relies on this military comprised of minorities, and the rebels rely on extremists and foreign fighters, is that the sectarian nature of the conflict intensifies.