As President Bashar Assad’s forces have survived into the fourth year of Syria’s civil war, the world media is noting another accomplishment of a regime that Western intelligence agencies once said should be a thing of the past. In the town of Yabroud near Damascus and the Lebanese border, the Syrian army and Hezbollah are methodically making progress in the struggle against the rebels.
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This progress combines with other key achievements: the taking of the city of Qusair last summer and the battles in the Qalamoun Mountains in recent months. If Yabroud is completely overrun, the rebels’ last bastion in the area will be gone, improving the regime’s ability to protect its supply lines, which curve from northern Syria toward Damascus.
But let’s not overrate the tactical achievement in Yabroud. The main turning point took place last year when Assad’s forces halted rebel attacks in major parts of the country. Meanwhile, the increased strength of Al-Qaida-linked factions in the opposition have deterred Europe and the United States from offering more assistance to the rebels.
It seems Assad owes his survival to outside help from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Arms shipments, financial help, consultants and volunteers have helped him stay afloat. If his regime is somehow overthrown during the fourth year of fighting, it will probably be because of his assassination.
The importance of Russia’s support for Assad becomes more obvious with time. After the first year of fighting, when it seemed Assad faced certain defeat, the Russian media reported that Moscow had decided to withdraw its advisers and experts. But some stayed, and in recent months Russia has come back into the picture at full strength.
Russian advisers are now integrated at all levels of the regime and its security forces, from assisting the army’s chief of staff to training troops. Shipments of arms and ammunition are sent to the regime via the port of Tartus in the north, where Russia is in control.
Some shipments are smuggled to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel, which a week ago justly accused Iran of abetting Assad’s massacre of Sunni Muslims, is keeping silent about Russia’s involvement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that his country (unlike another superpower he could have mentioned) isn’t turning its back on old friends. In addition, the establishment of a radical Islamist regime along Al-Qaida lines is definitely not in Russia’s interest.
When it seemed Assad had gotten himself in bad trouble by massacring 1,500 civilians near Damascus with chemical weapons, Russia saved him. Then there was the agreement for Syria to relinquish its enormous stockpile of chemical weapons, a deal reached between Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama. This left Assad’s regime in place and prevented an American military operation at the last minute.
On the other hand, let’s not overestimate the regime’s military capabilities. Proof of this is in the battles on the Golan Heights near the Israeli border early this month.
Last year the rebels completed their efforts to take control of about 80 percent of the area near the Israeli border. The situation after three years of fighting and more than 140,000 dead reflects a stalemate that is draining the blood of Syria’s citizens.
Syria is in the throes of a murderous war whose likes have not plagued the region for decades. Scenes shown on YouTube are hard to bear – in a neighboring country with which Israel has tried to make peace a number of times. Despite the tsk-tsking of the international community, it’s hard to see a way out of the situation in this fourth year of fighting.
Israel should be concerned with Hezbollah’s role in the fighting. Hezbollah’s contribution to Assad’s success has gained it enormous operational experience, not to mention confidence. Meanwhile, Israeli military officials believe that close to 5,000 Hezbollah fighters – roughly one-fourth of its regular forces – are stationed in Syria.
Hezbollah sources admitted last week that more than 500 of the group’s fighters have been killed in Syria. Even worse for Hezbollah, its involvement in the Syrian fighting has brought the war to its doorstep. In Shi’ite areas, including the Dahiyeh quarter in southern Beirut, rocket fire and car bombs have become routine.
But the new situation contains another risk for Israel. Last Friday, a bomb exploded near an Israeli military convoy on Har Dov near the border. This was apparently Hezbollah’s response to the bombing of its arms convoy in Lebanon in late February, which it blamed on the Israel Air Force. The prolonged war in Syria is undermining the security of Israel’s borders with both Syria and Lebanon, even if this is happening in small doses and at low intensity.