Strategic Geography and the End of Assad
3:05 PM, Jul 6, 2012 • By TONY BADRAN
This plain separates the mountains from the Syrian interior. The regime’s forces have occupied the al-Madiq citadel, perched atop a hill east of the Orontes River overlooking the plain, and have tried to push further east to villages like Kfar Zaita and Khan Shaykhoun. Their plan was to establish a forward strategic position outside the mountain enclave, in an attempt to disrupt enemy movement and logistical lines. However, the regime can no longer retake and hold the villages beyond the al-Madiq fortress. In fact, recent reports from inside Syria inform us that large areas around Jisr al-Shoughour and the Idlib countryside are now effectively under rebel control.
The shrinking reach of Assad’s limited manpower has begun to transform how the regime is conducting the war. Increasingly, it is relying on attack helicopters and heavy shelling. In order to retake rebel positions, Assad’s armored and infantry units have had to deploy massive concentrated force, or risk sustaining heavy losses, as was the case in Kfar Zaita, and before it further south in the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr. In fact, the regime’s tactical employment of tanks, and helicopters, has been quite poor. Much like the Lebanese Civil War, the conflict in Syria is gradually taking on the shape of static warfare between entrenched camps unable to overrun each other’s enclaves and hold them.
As the Assad regime retrenches into its consolidated redoubt, it will be increasingly reliant on the support of outside powers to continue holding out against its foes. Here again the Crusader precedent might be of relevance. Through their control of the port cities of the coast, the Crusader states were able, for a significant period of time, to rely on assistance from Europe, including important logistical support from Venice, Genoa and Pisa.
Assad’s potential canton would rely increasingly on the patronage and protection of Russia and Iran, effectively becoming a protectorate on the Mediterranean. With a hostile Turkey and a predominantly Sunni northern Lebanon the only other land borders of the mountain enclave, seaborne support will become vital, increasing the importance of the Tartus port. If Assad cannot control all of Syria, both Moscow and Tehran, each for their own reasons, would seek to maintain their foothold through regime continuity even in contracted form.
The prospect that Bashar al-Assad might eventually have no other choice than retrenchment in the coastal mountains is not without irony. His father Hafez always cited the “facts of history and geography” whenever he sought to justify his domination of Lebanon and Syria’s supposed claims in the wider Levant. How fitting that the realities of strategic geography would now spell the end of his family’s domination of Syria.
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