Balance of power in Syria shifting Assad's way
Beirut • As hopes for a Syrian peace conference fade and the opposition falls into growing disarray, President Bashar Assad has every reason to project confidence.
Government forces have moved steadily against rebels in key areas of the country over the past two months, making strategic advances and considerably lowering the threat to the capital, Damascus.
With army soldiers no longer defecting and elite Hezbollah fighters actively helping, the regime now clearly has the upper hand in a two-year civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people.
In back-to-back interviews with Lebanese TV stations this week, Assad and his foreign minister both projected an image of self-assuredness, boasting of achievements and suggesting that the military's offensive would continue regardless of whether a peace track is in place.
"What is happening now is not a shift in tactic from defense to attack, but rather a shift in the balance of power in favor of the armed forces," Assad said of his troops' recent battleground successes.
"There is no doubt that as events have unfolded, Syrians have been able to better understand the situation and what is really at stake," he told Al-Manar TV, owned by the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group. "This has helped the armed forces to better carry out their duties and achieve results."
Military analysts and activists on the ground in Syria say that Assad's forces have shown renewed determination since roughly the beginning of April, moving to recapture areas that had long fallen to rebels.
Significantly, Syrian troops appear to have gained the edge in the country's central Homs region.
The regime considers Homs strategically important partly because it links Damascus with the coastal heartland of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The rebels are mostly from the country's Sunni Muslim majority. The coast also is home to the country's two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus.
Syrian troops and Hezbollah forces have successfully been clearing the town of Qusair in Homs province, where rebels have been entrenched for a year.
State-run Syrian TV said troops on Friday captured the village of Jawadiyeh outside Qusair, closing all entrances leading to the town and tightening the government's siege.
For the rebels, holding the town means protecting their supply line to Lebanon, just six miles away.
Rebels have fought back against the government push into Qusair, and days ago called on opposition forces around the country to join them. Activists said that organized groups of rebels from the northern province of Aleppo managed on Friday to enter areas of the town still in opposition hands to help defend it.
In an interview with Al-Mayadeen TV Wednesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said he expected the fall of Qusair to the regime "within days."
The commander of the main Western-backed umbrella group of Syrian rebel brigades, Gen. Salim Idris, told The Associated Press in an interview this week that unless rebels receive weapons quickly, they might not be able to hold Qusair.
The army has also successfully pushed back rebels in some areas around the capital. According to residents, that's led to a decline in mortar shells on the city center that only few weeks ago were a daily occurrence.
"The army has broken the atmosphere of fear and terror inside Damascus that the rebels created by firing mortars," said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who heads the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut.
Jaber said troops have cleared up to 80 percent of the areas around Damascus in the past two months.
Equally important, he said, is the successful offensive the army is conducting in the area south of Damascus that links the capital with the Jordanian border.
Despite a surge in rebel advances near Jordan earlier this year, the government now appears to control much of Daraa province, an opposition stronghold south of Damascus and the birthplace of the uprising.
Experts say the defection rate from Assad's military has sharply dwindled by now, and he has more than made up for it with the help of paramilitary forces and Shiite fighters from Iraq and Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Politically, Assad can still count on the support of his Russian and Iranian allies and the growing disarray of the Western-backed Syrian opposition.
On Friday, Russia's MiG aircraft maker announced plans to sign a new agreement to ship at least 10 fighter jets to Syria, a move that comes amid international criticism of earlier Russian weapons deals with Assad's regime.
MiG's director general, Sergei Korotkov, said a Syrian delegation was in Moscow to discuss a new contract for MiG-29 M/M2 fighters. Russian news agencies cited him as saying Syria wants to buy "more than 10" such fighters, but wouldn't give the exact number.
Hours after the Russian announcement, the U.S. and Germany lashed out at Moscow's intentions to provide the Assad regime with an advanced air defense system, which they believe could prolong Syria's civil war.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia's transfer of the S-300 missiles would not be "helpful" as the U.S. and Russia jointly try to get the Syrian government and opposition into peace negotiations. The peace talks were initially planned for Geneva next month but have been delayed until July at the earliest.
After meeting Kerry, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Russia must not "endanger" the peace talks, describing weapon deliveries to Assad as "totally wrong."
An air defense system could also make it harder for the international community to enforce a possible no-fly zone to assist the Syrian rebels fighting Assad something it did in the 2011 civil war in Libya.
Meanwhile, Syria's main political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition faced stiff criticism from Syrian activists for spending weeklong meetings in Turkey bogged down in personal issues and quarrels about expanding its membership.
On Thursday, the Coalition announced that in light of "massacres" in Qusair, it would not attend peace talks.
Assad, in the interview, projected forcefulness and repeatedly mocked the opposition, calling members of the Coalition "tools" and "slaves" of the West and U.S.-allied Gulf Arab countries.
"We have absolute confidence in our victory," he said. While saying his government is ready "in principle" to attend peace talks in Geneva, he said any agreement reached there would have to be put to a referendum. He also said he would "not hesitate" to run for re-election in 2014 if the Syrian people so wished.
The Coalition's decision not to attend peace talks with representatives of the Assad regime torpedoes the only plan for trying to end Syria's civil war that the international community had been able to agree on.
With prospects for a diplomatic solution dim, the West may have to come up with a new approach. President Barack Obama will likely face renewed pressure to help the rebels militarily.
On Friday, Republican Senator John McCain said rebels need ammunition and heavy weapons to reverse a battlefield situation that currently favors Assad's forces. He spoke a day after he returned from an unannounced trip to Syria.
Britain and France, meanwhile, might have to reassess their timetable for possible arms shipments to the rebels. Earlier this week, the European Union's two main military powers had said they will not send weapons while peace talks remain a viable option.
Amr Al Azm, a U.S.-based Syrian activist and professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, said the regime's definition of victory has changed. He said it did not matter anymore to Assad that large swathes northern and northeastern Syria were out of government control.
"Assad now considers that if he survives until 2014 while holding on to the coast and the capital, his seat of power, that's victory," he said.
Meanwhile, relatives of a 33-year-old Michigan woman said Friday that she was killed in Syria, the only American known to have died fighting in the civil war. Nicole Lynn Mansfield's relatives said she became interested in the Middle East after converting to Islam and marrying an Arab immigrant several years ago, but said they didn't know she was in Syria.
A pro-Syrian TV said Mansfield, a British man and another fighter working with the opposition were killed in a confrontation with troops in the northern city of Idlib. The report on the circumstances of the deaths could not immediately be confirmed. Britain's Foreign Office confirmed that a U.K. national was killed in Syria but gave no other details.