After military defeats that cost him more key territory in recent weeks, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is back on the public relations offensive.
In a rare public appearance Wednesday, Assad urged Syrians to rally behind the troops and help boost their morale after setbacks. Dressed in an open-neck white shirt and dark jacket, he said gains and losses are “normal” in a protracted war, as educators and students at a Damascus school snapped pictures of him shaking hands with the crowd.
The PR exercise was designed to demonstrate to his people and governments abroad that setbacks don’t mean his regime is falling. The advances by the mainly Islamist rebels have been the biggest insurgent victories in two years.
“They have to hear from their leader that all is well,” Kamran Bokhari, an adviser for Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs at Texas-based consulting firm Stratfor, said by telephone from Toronto. “If morale is sagging then you can expect more reversals on the battlefield. But it’s way too early to say that the regime is on a downward spiral.”
Idlib in the northwest fell in March, the second provincial city the government has lost after Islamic State captured Raqqah, now the group’s base, in 2013 and made it the extremist group’s de facto capital a year later. Last month, the militants overran the key northwestern town of Jisr Shughour, bringing them closer to Latakia, a city will a sizable population of Alawites, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam that Assad belongs to.
On the southern front, the rebels gained momentum with the capture of Busra al-Sham and Nassib border crossing with Jordan.
“There is no worry, but this doesn’t prevent us from warning people that the beginning of frustration leads to defeat,” Assad said in Damascus.
Syria’s conflict, which began with peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011, has killed more than 220,000 people, wounded at least 1 million and displaced about 10 million. The government kept control over the country’s major population centers running from south of Damascus through Hama and to the Mediterranean coast. Islamist-dominated rebels and Islamic State control most of the rural areas.
In the background there’s the crumbling economy and a steep depreciation in the local currency.
Syria’s ally, Iran, is weighing a second $1 billion credit line to prop up Assad’s government, Syrian Central Bank Governor Adib Mayaleh said in an interview this week.
As well as finances, the war has stretched Assad’s forces and he’s had to rely on fighters from Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah group to help his troops. Hezbollah is engaged in clashes with Islamists on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. Its fighters, backed by the Syrian army, wrested control Thursday of several hills in Syria’s Qalamoun area from the Islamists, including the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
The opposition’s latest advances indicate the regime has run out of resources to shore up its military position, Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said by telephone from London.
“It just can’t provide enough fighters to both hold or retake areas,” Sayigh said. “It means that it has to contract, prioritize and go back to trying to fight and survive.”
The advances are also a by-product of better relations among the main regional sponsors of the rebels, namely Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and among Syria’s fractious rebel factions, said Sayigh. Another factor that might trigger a more accelerated dismantling of the regime is the outcome of the Iran nuclear deal. The deadline for a final accord with a group of countries led by the U.S. is June 30.
“Does that lead to some sort of a regional bargain resulting in Iranian-Russian pressure on the Syrian regime or not?” said Sayigh.
Tehran may use its leverage over the Syrian regime to pressure Assad to moderate his ways or otherwise step down, said Anthony Skinner, head of analysis for the Middle East and North Africa at U.K.-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft. It could also boost its financial aid to Assad as sanctions are lifted and more money comes its way, he said.
“Whether this occurs, however, will depend on whether Tehran still feels that Bashar’s tenure is sustainable,” said Skinner. He cited how Iranian-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was forced to resign last year amid accusations that his Shiite-dominated administration fueled sectarianism.
Bokhari said Assad’s appearance won’t be one-off. The regime will send other signals “to say that we may have suffered a defeat, but we have a lot of things going on and we’re going to stage a come-back,” said Bokhari.
“That’s the purpose of Assad now,” he said.
For more, read this QuickTake: Syria's Civil War