Endgame or new phase in Syria’s 4-year-old conflict?

May 01, 2015

Syrian state TV Thursday abruptly suspended its non-news and political programming in a telling sign of how sharply the tide has turned against President Bashar Assad’s regime in recent weeks.

Military setbacks in and around the northwestern towns of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur have resulted in an estimated several hundred dead and wounded regime forces from the army and paramilitary groups. They have also generated images – circulated widely on social media – that have struck at the morale of the loyalist side as rumors of a planned regime retreat to the coast, and expected massacres against Assad’s Alawite sect, gain momentum.

State news agency SANA Thursday also advised the public that it should discount the many rumors and “false news items” being spread by anti-regime media outlets which it said were part of a psychological war being waged against the authorities and the Syrian people.

Some officials, like former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, have questioned whether the regime, as it demonstrates a marked inability to defend and not just launch sustained offensives, has reached the “beginning of the end.”

Other observers and experts are more skeptical, but are closely watching the authorities as they react to the setbacks, possibly with a radical retrenchment into a rump state.

While the regime has also lost territory and taken heavy casualties around the capital and in Deraa in the south in recent weeks, the main focus has been in Idlib, where a coalition of rebel and jihadi militias called the Army of Conquest has been steadily eating up territory and now threatens to move forward with attacks against the neighboring provinces of Latakia, to the west, and Hama, to the south.

There have been video footage and photos showing regime forces retreating en masse across hilly terrain in the wake of the rebels’ advance, while a short piece of video footage shows Syria’s most prominent army officer, Col. Suheil al-Hasan, just prior to the pullout from Jisr al-Shughur.

Still photographs of Hasan on the front lines in several parts of Syria have circulated on many occasions during the war, but this is the first known example of him on video.

Hasan, known widely by his nickname the “tiger,” appears agitated and, after leading a few chants of support of Assad, makes a desperate plea for ammunition from Gen. Fahd Freij, the defense minister.

“This first meaningful public appearance by Hasan, thanks to this leaked video, is a very negative one for him in terms of his image, and of the authorities,” said a Syrian observer of the conflict, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely.

Freij is now in Tehran on a visit to shore up assistance from Assad’s chief ally, and regime supporters have steadily expressed anger over what they see as Iran’s failure to adequately support the Assad regime in its battle against insurgents.

Other video footage shows the capture and short interrogation of an obviously demoralized regime colonel, from the Alawite sect, whom the rebels found hiding in Jisr al-Shughur after it was overrun.

A more alarming piece of video purports to show a captured paramilitary fighter confronting a group of rebels. When the man answers “Alawite” to a question about his sectarian affiliation, he is immediately gunned down in a hail of bullets.

Naturally, pro-regimers claim the incident indicates the rebels are out to kill every Alawite they get their hands on, while some anti-regimers claim the man, apparently a paramilitary fighter, was guilty of wartime atrocities.

In the village of Ishtabraq in southern Idlib province, reports of a massacre of dozens of Alawites have been circulating for several days, with both sides putting forward very different accounts of what happened.

The incident was ignored by state media, according to several sources, until a wave of anger by loyalists forced the authorities to bring it to public attention.

Various pro-regime sources have said that anywhere between 30 to 130 people were killed, with the majority women and children.

Pro-opposition sources have also acknowledged the killings but say the victims were paramilitary fighters who were guilty of atrocities against civilians in the area.

Faced with the accusations of sectarian-based killings, supporters of the opposition – not surprisingly – express irritation that attacks by regime forces, whether through barrel bombs or alleged chlorine gas attacks, have resulted in massacres on a near-daily basis that end up targeting only one sect, namely the Sunnis.

Rebel groups have also waged their own propaganda war. The Ansar al-Din Front militia, active in the Idlib area, Tuesday posted a photo of seven youngsters, seated and smiling in a field, and identified them as Alawites who had been abandoned by their parents during the recent fighting and chaos.

It says the children are “under the protection” of the militia, which did not respond to a request from The Daily Star for further comment.

The growing outrage in pro-regime circles has focused on the ineffective performance of the authorities, whether military or civilian, and the disappointing lack of backing from Iran, despite repeated statements of support.

There has also been a noticeable rise in anger directed at the shabbiha themselves, for committing outrages against Syrian Sunnis – and possibly others – that only stoke the climate of sectarian hatred.

In Homs, the loyalist neighborhood of Zahraa has seen several days of clashes between the army and the “shabbiha” paramilitaries, according to multiple sources, although the governor of Homs, Talal al-Barazi, Thursday issued a firm denial that any such unrest was taking place.

Local pro-regime Facebook pages said eruptions of gunfire were being heard periodically due to the arrival of either the survivors from the fighting in Idlib, or the coffins bearing their fallen comrades.

But several sources following the developments said the clashes were touched off when intelligence personnel sought to arrest the paramilitaries for their alleged involvement in a string of bombings in the city, which they used to plunder goldsmiths’ stores in the chaotic aftermath of the attacks.

Meanwhile, pro-regime Syrians, along with people who might not like the regime but are staunchly opposed to the rebels, have been speaking increasingly of the possibility that the authorities will now try to cut their losses and retreat to a type of rump state based on the coast.

There have been multiple reports, mostly unconfirmed, that the authorities have been busy transferring the contents of state banks, museums and other government facilities to Tartous or Latakia, with the latter widely expected to be declared a provisional capital in the event of a regime retreat from areas such as Aleppo in the north, Deraa in the south, or even Damascus.

The observer told The Daily Star that preparations are also underway for some type of change in Swaida, the Druze-majority province.

“The state bank was completely emptied out earlier this week and some movable items from the museum were also taken away, in armored cars,” the source said.

“The military authorities have been notified that any day an Iranian force of 2,000-3,000 fighters will be deployed in Swaida,” he said.

Several statements of direct challenge to the news have already begun circulating, the observer continued, with residents vowing to resist such a deployment by force if necessary.

Again, much of the daily stream of rumors and reports might not reflect the reality of what is taking place, but the observer maintained that certain developments are worrying for the regime.

The dollar exchange rate has soared above 300 SP, and pro-regime social media are busy reporting any sign of financial support, from the governments of Iran to Venezuela.

And in one of the most powerful “political messages” of recent days, a 20-minute, slickly produced video shows a graduation ceremony for 1,700 fighters with the Islam Army rebel militia, based in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

The video, which was likely shot in recent weeks, coincided with a rare visit by the militia’s controversial leader Zahran Alloush to Turkey, where he conferred with civilian and military opposition members who have been alluding to the recent, noticeable increase in backing from Ankara and Riyadh, Assad’s principal foes.

The observer said the video was an explicit message to the regime and its supporters: “We are here, and we are ready to enter the capital.”

By Marlin Dick
Report and photo from: Daily Star, Lebanon: https://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2015/May-01/296461-endgame...

Links (from Daily Star, Lebanon):


Col. Suheil al-Hasan in Idlib


Islam Army militia ceremony

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 01, 2015, on page 10.