The past two months in southern Syria have exposed yet again the weakness of Bashar Al-Assad’s tattered regime – and how utterly reliant it remains on its Russian and Iranian partners to maintain a hold even on areas it ostensibly controls. The fall of Kabul has been a cautionary tale to Al-Assad.
The city of Daraa, near the border with Jordan, was among areas that Russian-brokered deals with rebels brought under regime control in 2018. One of the original hotbeds of the 2011 Syrian revolution, it was in Daraa that mass protests against Al-Assad’s rule first broke out, and the region remained one of the most staunchly opposed to the government for the better part of a decade. When local rebel factions reached a “reconciliation agreement” with Damascus in 2018, it was different from parallel deals in the rebel pockets of northern Homs and Eastern Ghouta. Rebels were allowed to retain light weapons and remain in the area, not forced to transit to Idlib as their comrades elsewhere. The result was a tense, yet largely stable, arrangement that saw local rebels continue to hold sway over their neighborhoods as regime security forces controlled the entrances and supplies.
This setup managed to hold for the better part of three years, despite constant tensions and occasional exchanges of fire. Matters finally came to their likely inevitable head two months ago, however, when creeping incursions from regime militias sparked a rebel backlash and the imposition of a full-scale siege by the government in response. After weeks of clashes and artillery bombardment amid a seemingly imminent major government offensive, Russian mediators stepped in to secure the exodus on August 25 of most remaining rebels to northern Syria. The resulting deal sees regime forces exercise near-total control over all of Daraa city for the first time in a decade.
Yet this outcome belies the military debacle that preceded it. From the time Damascus resolved to end the crisis via force in late July, its forces suffered one humiliation after another. The supposedly crack 4th armored division, the regime’s praetorian unit headed by Al-Assad’s brother Maher and responsible for besieging Daraa, fared little better than any other barely trained militia in the regime’s employ.
Footage showed rebel fighters, despite possessing no heavy weapons and suffering years of isolation, capturing regime checkpoints and groups of soldiers in a throwback to the early 2010s. Government offensives failed to make inroads into rebel-held neighborhoods and were repeatedly thrown back with ease. In the end, the only accomplishment government forces were capable of was bombing the city indiscriminately.
And so it fell to one of the regime’s allies to clean up its mess: in this case Russia, which implemented the 2018 ceasefire in the area, and marginally more trusted by locals than the Iranian militias that were the other option.
In one sense, this sequence demonstrated the leverage that Al-Assad possesses over his foreign backers. The Syrian ruler was able to restart a frozen conflict area and force it irreversibly to a point of resolution, whether that be via diplomatic means or purely military ones. Moscow, not wanting the tenuous calm it imposed three years ago to fully unravel, was thus induced to step in and grant Damascus’s wish of imposing control by softer means.
It is the regime’s utter inability to achieve anything militarily before that, however, that is the other main takeaway of this saga. It’s true that the groups entrenched in Daraa were not green upstarts. These were established factions hardened by years of combat. But the combat abilities of even the regime’s “elite” forces proved so miserable that it’s hard to imagine any – even slightly – organized insurgency being ousted by them. The only likely outcome of further fighting in this dense urban environment would have likely been an indefinite series of failed infantry assaults settling into an indiscriminate bombardment campaign, much the same as how regime forces failed for years to make any inroads into neighborhoods like Jobar and Qaboun just a few kilometers from the center of Damascus. No amount of Russian retraining efforts has been able to change this equation, evidently.
The events of this summer in Daraa, then, show that Al-Assad regime’s only method of maintaining control – brute force – is destined to fail the second its foreign backers draw down. The Syrian government has long since abandoned any pretense of rebuilding the country or making life livable for its remaining citizens, opting instead to siphon off what little money keeps flowing while governing exclusively by fear. That then puts essentially the entire burden for maintaining what amounts to security to its allies.
While Syria is far from being identical to Afghanistan under Nato protection, there are parallels in Al-Assad dependence on foreign forces. Whether Russia or Iran will ever willingly withdraw their forces is a question. But if they do, the fall of Al-Assad’s Damascus could come at a pace to rival Kabul.
Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Tbilisi, Georgia. His work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus.