The bigger picture is gradually becoming clear: After almost a year of a relative stalemate, the Assad regime is retreating on multiple fronts.By Amos Harel
In a speech on Sunday to mark the 15th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah termed the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, “a danger second to none in history.” The previous day, he said Hezbollah was fighting an existential threat to Lebanon and the entire Arab world, warning that if Syria’s Sunni rebels succeeded in topping the Assad regime, they would perpetrate slaughter, rape and slavery in Lebanon. He also called for a general Lebanese mobilization against Islamic State, attesting to the difficulties Hezbollah and the Assad regime are having in finding enough people to fight on all the fronts where they are engaged.
The tone of alarm in Nasrallah’s speeches is reinforced by the unending stream of bad news for Assad’s forces in Syria. In eastern Syria, Islamic State has captured the ancient city of Palmyra and apparently massacred Syrian soldiers there. In northwest Syria, the Sunni rebels are advancing; this weekend, they captured a hospital compound in Jisr al-Shughur where Assad loyalists had held out for weeks, and from which Syrian President Bashar Assad had promised in vain to rescue them. And heavy fighting continues in the Qalamoun mountains region on the Syria-Lebanon border.
The bigger picture is gradually becoming clear: After almost a year of a relative stalemate, the Assad regime is retreating on multiple fronts. The rebels’ advances in the north, in which the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front is also participating, endangers the coastal strongholds of Assad’s Alawite sect and threatens the cities of Homs and Hama from the west. Those cities are also threatened from the east, by Islamic State, which in addition is bombarding Damascus on a daily basis and has seized positions in the capital’s eastern neighborhoods.
Israeli security sources attribute the Assad regime’s failures since March to the ongoing erosion in his military capabilities and in his fighters’ motivation after more than four years of bloody civil war. These sources also confirmed recent reports in the British press that for the first time in a long time, the Syrian rebels are getting coordinated assistance from other countries, primarily Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, which in the had past quarreled among themselves over what to do in Syria.
Particularly noteworthy is the use of TOW antitank missiles on the northern front. These American-made missiles, which were recently shipped in from the Gulf states, are a relatively antiquated model; the Israel Defense Forces got them back in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and replaced them two years ago with an improved version made by the Israeli firm Rafael. But it constitutes a major development for Syria’s civil war. The acquisition of large quantities of TOW missiles has, for the first time, enabled the rebels to mount significant attacks on Syrian tanks.
All this news constitutes a deterioration in Assad’s position. He still benefits from Hezbollah’s reinforcements, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s command capabilities and Russian arms shipments to the northern port of Tartus. But taken altogether, recent developments constitute a real threat to his survival.
Consequently, Israeli defense officials now see a reasonable chance that sometime in the coming months, Assad will decide to abandon Damascus and focus on defending the Alawite enclave in the north.
So far, Israel has been relatively uninvolved in the Syrian war. The last airstrike on a weapons convoy to Hezbollah that was attributed to Israel occurred over a month ago. But the Assad regime’s worsening situation will soon force Israel to discuss a question that has been in the air for years: How should it behave in the post-Assad era?
Right now, the threat to Israel from the Syrian border seems relatively low. Direct or indirect understandings have been reached with the rebel groups that control most of the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, and so far, this has prevented any attacks on Israel.
But circumstances could change for the worse if Assad’s forces are ousted from the last bit of the border they control, at the Golan’s northern tip, since the most radical rebel organizations might then feel more confident about their own control over the area.