Assad admits Syrian army focused on holding key areas

Syrian government estimated to control no more than 25 per cent of the country

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said on Sunday his army had been forced to give up areas in order to hold onto more important ones in its fight with insurgents, and the scale of the war meant the military faced a manpower shortage.

In a remarkably frank assessment of the strains afflicting the Syrian military after more than four years of conflict, Dr Assad said the type of war confronting Syria meant the army could not fight everywhere for risk of losing vital ground.

“Sometimes, in some circumstances, we are forced to give up areas to move those forces to the areas that we want to hold onto,” Dr Assad said in a televised speech.

“We must define the important regions that the armed forces hold onto so it doesn’t allow the collapse of the rest of the areas.”


Dr Assad has absorbed a series of battlefield defeats since March: He lost most of the northwestern province of Idlib to an insurgent alliance including the al Qaeda-backed Nusra Front, and important areas of the southern region along the border with Jordan to mainstream groups of the “Southern Front”.

In addition, Islamic State insurgents seized the central city of Palmyra from the Syrian military in May.

The Syrian government’s territorial control stands at no more than 25 per cent of the country, with the rest divided among an array of armed groups including Islamic State, other rebel groups and a well-organised Kurdish militia, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war.

But the state-held area is home to the majority of the population.

Dr Assad said increased support from states backing the rebels - including Turkey - was the reason for recent setbacks that had created “a state of despair” among Syrians.

Syria is in a war funded by the richest and most powerful states, he said.

But Dr Assad struck a defiant tone, saying there would be no compromise solutions, and he dismissed the view that Syria was heading towards partition into areas run separately by the Damascus government and armed groups fighting him.

“Everything is available (for the army), but there is a shortfall in human capacity,” Dr Assad said. “Despite that, I am not presenting a dark picture.”

Military reversals for Dr Assad have ever more reduced his control beyond the main population centres of western Syria that comprise the cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and the coastal region forming the heartland of his Alawite sect.

In the assessment of many diplomats and analysts, Dr Assad has been forced to forgo some far-flung parts of the country to focus efforts on protecting more defensible areas in the west.

Some diplomats say that Iran, his main regional ally, has advised him to retrench.

The army still, however, has footholds in the northeast, the east, and the south, in addition to Syria's second city Aleppo.

Dr Assad said the idea behind giving up territory was to allow for later counter-attacks. “From a military point of view, holding to this area, or that patch, would lead to the recovery of the other areas.”