Two weeks after its decisive victory in Yabroud, a key strategic town in the Qalamoun Mountains, the Syrian government came under attack in Latakia, its heartland, by a coalition of rebel forces. The opposition has now taken control of the Christian Armenian village of Kessab, its largest victory to date in the province. The fighting there continues, diverting the government’s limited manpower from battles in Idlib and Hama that are strategically more important.
Even so, our analysts say the government’s confidence remains high. Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center, and Omar Lamrani, military analyst at the geopolitical firm Stratfor, weigh in.
Syria Deeply: How confident is the government right now?
Omar Lamrani: The overall trend is that they’re feeling confident. They’ve had instances where that confidence must have been shaken, like the recent offensive in northern Latakia by the rebels. That’s a region where they didn’t expect something like that and it took them by surprise, although it’s a symbolic victory for the rebels more than a strategic one.
We’ve seen the government gain a significant victory in Yabroud, which points to ongoing progress in the Qalamoun offensive. They also secured the capital of western Homs, which points to success in the core central areas where they are concentrating resources. They feel they’re winning but continue to be wary about the future.
What led to the government doing well: rebel infighting has diverted a lot of manpower from fighting Assad to fighting each other. The Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army turned against ISIS, especially in Deir Ezzor, where they are still fighting each other heavily. At the same time, one of the key things that keeps the government confident right now is the fact that they continue to receive massive support from Iran and Hezbollah.
Even the issue between the U.S. and Russia over Crimea is something that’s making the government happy, because they know Russia is unlikely to keep pressuring [Assad] to [stay in] line. And they’ll continue to get weapons from Russia.
Yezid Sayigh: Latakia doesn’t change everything. There will continue to be little surprises and initiatives here and there, times when the Syrian opposition or armed rebels will spring a surprise, or take a village or town. What’s made this more notable is that it’s in [the Alawite stronghold of] Latakia. They have taken larger numbers of villages in other regions, but because of the location this seems like a bigger deal.
SD: What is the state of the government’s manpower and resources?
Lamrani: The help from Hezbollah, which provides somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 men, is a massive bonus for them. It contributes heavily to the Syrian army’s efforts along the Lebanese border. They’re getting a lot of fighters from Iraq now. The creation of the National Defense Forces also created a lot more access to manpower.
Even with all these things they’ve worked on to alleviate manpower concerns, they do have a lot of problems sending forces all over Syria. They’ll never have enough to concentrate on offenses all over the country at the same time.
They focus on one or two areas, and as they do that, they leave other areas vulnerable to rebel action. They had no choice but to bring forces from Idlib and Hama to Latakia to reinforce their positions there. They were seeing significant rebel action in those two provinces, and they had no choice but to move their soldiers. Overall, they do not have the manpower to completely secure the country [all at once] in an effective manner.
Sayigh: They are certainly stretched, which is why they have rarely been able to make big advances on two fronts at same time. They’re advancing slowly and carefully. They can’t afford big losses because a) they slow everything else down and b) they have difficulty following through [because of the lack of manpower]. If they make an advance, they can’t turn that into a decisive breakthrough [right away]. So throughout the country they’ve moved at a grindingly slow pace, as they did around Aleppo.
They can’t afford to throw away their manpower. They’ve been making steady advances in most areas and where they’ve advanced, they have [held and] not later had to retreat. They’ve made advances in Aleppo since October. They’ve had to fight for areas for two months at a time [before they control them], but people forget that.
The balance for the government is between the fact that, yes, they are stretched on manpower, but that doesn’t prevent them from fighting and being effective. It looks like they can sustain the status quo indefinitely. Since, generally speaking, they’re doing better than the opposition, the question is, can the rebellion do this indefinitely as well? And my feeling is that the rebellion has hit a plateau.