Assad will not abandon Damascus

Last Updated 04 August 2015, 18:09 IST

From time to time, Western analysts who do not visit Syria, confidently predict that President Bashar al-Assad is fortifying his communal heartland in preparation for the flight of his family and supporters from the capital to the mountain town of Qardaha near the northern port city of Latakia. 

The latest round of false predictions was sparked by Assad's televised address on July 26 when he admitted military reverses due to overstretch of the country's armed forces but vowed to continue fighting until victory is achieved.  The false prophets do not comprehend that Assad cannot and will not abandon Damascus, known as "es-Sham" in Arabic.  "Es-Sham" also means Syria and neighbouring lands.

Without Damascus, no regime can stand in Syria.  This is why Assad's forces have fought for four and a half years to hold Damascus and its suburbs and have invested most of Syria's blood and treasure to do so.  To secure Damascus, Assad has also had to secure the westward highway to Lebanon, the mountain range along the border between Syria and Lebanon, the coastal port cities, the central cities of Hama and Homs, and portions of Aleppo, Syria's former commercial hub.

His forces currently control about 40 per cent of the land area of Aleppo but rule over 85 per cent of its embattled population which remains steadfast in spite of the lack of electricity and water during the current regional heat wave with punishing temperatures of 42-44 degrees Celsius. If it were not for irregular power cuts which affect everything, Damascus would be nearly "normal." 

Government servants go to their jobs and collect their monthly salaries at ATMs on street corners.  Shops open for business; en route to their places of employment office workers walk shoulder to shoulder along baking hot pavements. Cafes and restaurants are operating normally in the Abu Rummaneh diplomatic quarter where the Indian embassy is located as well as in the Old City where youngsters gather evenings to smoke water pipes and snack on Syrian specialities. 

During the five days that Deccan Herald's correspondent spent in Damascus, there was only one short bout of fighting to the south of the city.  War planes flew overhead and bomb and mortar explosions echoed among the high rise buildings of the city. While maintaining his military focus on "es-Sham," Assad is likely to be encouraged by three politico-military developments. 

The first is the collapse of the US effort to train and deploy "moderate" fighters against Islamic State (IS), now deemed to be the main regional threat, at least by the US and Europe.  So far, only 57 "moderates" have been recruited, trained, equipped and sent across the Turkish border into northern Syria. Last weekend, the commander of the group, dubbed "Division 30," and 19 fighters were captured by al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra which subsequently attacked the rank and file, killing at least one.  Although the US believed al-Qaeda would make common cause with "Division 30" against IS, Nusra has denounced the faction and vowed to crush it.

US-led coalition
Turkey suddenly agreed to join the US-led coalition against IS and sent several warplanes into action against IS targets in Syria and Iraq. It also dispatched scores of planes on bombing runs against Turkish Kurdish positions in south-eastern Turkey and the mountains of the Kurdish region in Iraq.  Ankara also rounded up Kurdish sympathisers in the country rather than IS recruiters who send Turkish men and their families to the Syrian and Iraqi fronts. 

In exchange for Turkish agreement to allow US fighter-bombers to fly missions from the Incirlik Nato airbase in southern Turkey, Ankara has secured US support for a 100 km IS-exclusion zone along the central Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey's real target is not IS.  Ankara is determined to prevent Syrian Kurds from securing this area and asserting control of the eastern border.  For the Turks, the issue is not IS but the Syrian and Turkish Kurds, whom Ankara seeks to suppress.

Finally, the expatriate opposition Syrian National Coalition, backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the West, has suffered the withdrawal of the Local Coordination Committees, the sole member with some domestic support. The coalition, founded and initially funded by Turkey, has never been, in itself, a serious contender for power in Syria but a plaything of its sponsors who continue to adopt conflicting agendas on the Syrian conflict, creating deadlock on the political plane and unleashing on that country and Iraq unending violence and suffering.

The only option is negotiation and the formation of a common front against not only IS but also Nusra and the host of jihadi groups currently fighting the Syrian and Iraqi governments.  So far, Washington and its allies have been reluctant to embrace this option, preferring to rely on moderate" fighters who do not exist and an opposition coalition with no standing or credibility.

(Published 04 August 2015, 18:08 IST)

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