It asserts that in spring 2013, “the regime lacked the necessary manpower to conduct simultaneous operations on multiple fronts against rebel groups that were quickly making gains throughout the north, south and Damascus countryside. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had sustained more losses than it could replenish. It relied on air assets to resupply besieged troops in its Aleppo and Idlib outposts because it lacked overland logistical lines connecting those outposts.”
ISW’s Isabel Nassief, the paper’s author, explains why Assad is confident in the new year, but won’t be able to pull off a “decisive victory” over rebel fighters.
Syria Deeply: What is the current outlook for the regime?
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Isabel Nassief: The regime is stronger in January 2014 than it was last year. Going into the 2013 year, the regime had significant challenges, one of which centered on an issue of manpower. Due to defections, deaths and general attrition, it had lost a lot of troops. The regime was also faced with an insurgency that was fighting an unconventional war, and it didn’t have the capacity to meet that challenge because the Syrian Arab Army had been trained as a conventional fighting force. Over the course of 2013 there was increasing support for the regime from Hezbollah, Iran and Iraqi Shia militias, and Russia that has boosted their manpower and helped them fight this unconventional war.
SD: Why did you decide to explore the situations in these two cities?
IN: Homs is the lynchpin of the regime’s supply routes between Damascus and the coast. Homs also contains the regime’s primary supply lines between Damascus and Aleppo which is significant. Aleppo is interesting because there have been a lot of reports that the regime would retract to a rump Alawi state in Latakia and Tartous. What happened in 2013 is that the regime repeatedly ventured up towards Aleppo and does not intend to give it up. It’s important because it says that the regime’s end goals still involve some degree of territorial integrity.
Homs’s proximity to Lebanon makes it a more viable battlefield, with Hezbollah’s participation, and the extent of Hezbollah’s command and control of operations in Homs is far greater than that it is in Aleppo.
SD: They are very different battles. What are the differences?
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IN: In Homs, the regime has been able to rely to a greater extent on the population. In the predominantly Alawi neighborhoods of Homs city the regime is able to depend on the civilians more. You’ve seen them try to replicate this advantage in other parts of Homs province, where they’ve destroyed property records and tried to repopulate formerly Sunni towns with Alawite civilians. But Aleppo is a much different city and the demographics don’t lend themselves that way. Proximity to the porous Turkish border and reliable supply streams have also allowed the opposition to become really strong in Aleppo province.
SD: What is the regime’s outlook for 2014?
IN: The regime does not have the capacity to fight for decisive victory in 2014. They are still constrained in terms of manpower and their capacity to fight an unconventional war has improved but is still limited. The use of barrel bombing is one indication of these limitations: the use of barrel bombs suggests that the regime wants to clear an area without committing large numbers of ground troops. The regime continues to rely on that and similar tactics that are hugely destructive and devastating but allow it to conserve forces. Momentum favors the regime right now but the regime doesn’t have the capacity to bring about a decisive victory.