and Bassem Mroue
BEIRUT: In a striking admission, Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview broadcast Wednesday that his armed forces will need time to defeat the rebels and addressed the string of defections from his authoritarian regime.
The comments amounted to an acknowledgment that even though the opposition lacks the government’s tanks and airplanes, their tenacity and tactical creativity — combined with the military’s struggle to fight on multiple fronts — have yielded a stalemate that could prolong the civil war with many more dead.
Over the past few months, Syria’s military has increasingly been stretched thin fighting on multiple fronts against rebels seeking to oust Assad. His forces have been unable to quell the rebellion as it spread to the capital, Damascus, with significant clashes that began in July and to Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, a few weeks later. At the same time, the military is fighting smaller scale battles in a string of other cities and towns around the country.
With neither side making significant advances, the conflict is looking more like a war of attrition that could be very drawn out.
“We are fighting a regional and global war, so time is needed to win it,” Assad said in an interview with the pro-regime private TV station Dunya. “We are moving forward. The situation is practically better but it has not been decided yet. That takes time,” he told the station, which is majority owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad and one of Syria’s wealthiest men.
“If the armed forces wanted to use the entire range of its firepower, it can wipe out many areas. But this will be unacceptable,” said Assad.
Assad also appeared to make light of the significant number of defections, some of them senior military and political officials, including the prime minister.
“Defections are a positive process. Generally, it is self-cleansing of the state and the nation,” said Assad. “If there is a Syrian citizen who knows of someone who wishes to flee but is hesitant to do so he should encourage him,” he said with a smile. “Whoever flees is either weak or bad. A patriotic or a good person does not flee.”
Assad claimed there were cases when authorities knew in advance of officials who wanted to flee and allowed them to do so unhindered. But he did not provide any specifics.
Fight at any price
Taken together with his comments to a visiting Iranian official over the weekend, Assad shows willingness for an even more prolonged conflict, even with more than 20,000 estimated dead in more than 17 months of fighting.
His regime, he told the senior Iranian official, would continue the fight against the rebels “whatever the price.”
Analysts and rights activists say the military has been unable to defeat the rebels in large part because of the tactics of its enemy — a rag-tag army of civilians-turned-fighters and defected soldiers without a clear chain of command.
“It is extremely difficult to stop an insurrection that has spread so widely, even with far superior firepower, as demonstrated by the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Chistopher Chivvis, a senior analyst with the Rand Corp. “The task becomes even harder when there are neighboring countries that support the insurrection”
The insurgents do not have to hold territory and can take advantage of the fact that the military cannot fight as easily on multiple fronts, said Michael W. Hanna, a Middle East expert who monitors the Syrian conflict for the Century foundation in New York.
Hanna also picked up on Assad’s claim that the military is holding back on using its full power.
“If the Syrian military wants to retake territory it can do so but will be forced to use disproportionate force,” he said. “Such actions run the perennial risk of alienating civilians and creating new motivations for anti-government actions.”