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In Syria, Signs That The Army Is Losing Ground To Rebel Groups


After four years of war in Syria, there are signs that President Bashar al-Assad's forces are depleted. Many soldiers have died in the fighting, and the regime is having a difficult time recruiting. Every day now, the army is losing ground to a coalition of rebel groups.

Anne Barnard has been following the story for the New York Times. We spoke to her from her home in Beirut. I asked her to describe the situation within the Syrian army.

ANNE BARNARD: Well, this is an army that has been fighting now for four years. It didn't collapse the way people thought it would in the early parts of the uprising. It still has dedication from parts of the core of Bashar al-Assad's support in the Alawite community and the families that have long served in the military. But the Army is having trouble replenishing its ranks. Its numbers are half of what they were at the beginning of the crisis, according to some intelligence estimates.

And the problem is that even people that are pro-government are not sure that they want to send their sons to die in faraway parts of Syria that they're beginning to feel may never be recaptured by the government. They'd prefer to keep their sons at home to defend their villages and their families in case insurgents come close to those areas.

RATH: And what are you hearing about what's happening on the ground and how much territory they're losing and to whom?

BARNARD: Well, in the past month or so, they've lost some key areas - the only functioning border crossing with Jordan, the provincial capital of Idlib in the north and areas to the southwest of Idlib which had been held by the government for a long time. But I think the more important thing that's going on is that there seems to be a fragmentation of the security forces in the sense that there are many different militias and army units that are continuing to hold up the government. But they don't all work in sync all the time, and they are increasingly taking care of their own interests, which do not always coincide.

RATH: And you write about how the depletion of the army and of government resources raises newly urgent questions about the durability of President Bashar al-Assad's rule. President Assad has held on for so long now. How do these developments change things?

BARNARD: Well, in one sense, they don't suggest necessarily that he's about to flee Damascus or anything like that. He is clearly strongly committed to holding on to Damascus and the coast and the corridor that connects the two. What we are seeing is a collapse - more quickly than had been expected - in other areas which might have been considered of secondary importance to the government, but still are considered, you know, core parts of Syria, like the Western part of Aleppo, which has still been held by the government up to now, even though it's largely surrounded by insurgent-held areas, and the southern city of Daraa. No one was expecting that those provincial capitals would go anytime soon, but after what happened in Idlib, some are wondering whether those might go.

RATH: And in terms of U.S. interests here - because not everyone who is fighting the Assad regime were are necessarily friends of the U.S. - what is the Assad regime's new weakness? Who does that benefit? Does that - does that help U.S. interests?

BARNARD: Well, it's a big question mark. I mean, it's really unclear what the American position is on the next steps. Let's say that this coalition of insurgents continues to advance. One of the major players in this coalition is Jabhat al-Nusra, which is al-Qaida's branch in Syria.

There's other Islamists groups that were part of the original rebellion in Syria that are largely Syrian. There is a smattering of nationalist groups that were part of the original rebellion. Then, there's a whole other fight going on in the east with the Islamic State, which is also advancing in some places. So the question is what is the endgame that we're looking at now? And does the United States even have levers to affect what would happen next if President Assad did fall?

RATH: And, you know, Anne, this war's been going on so long. Does the weakening of Syria's army - is that at least a sign of a corner being turned? Or what can we take away from this?

BARNARD: Well, I'm always reluctant in this conflict to pronounce turning points. Really, I think the most important thing that we can say is that as the government security forces begin to appear more fragmented and more like militias, really who's caught in the middle are the civilians.

We're seeing an increase in barrel bombs and alleged chlorine attacks by the government. We're seeing insurgents coming into new areas. People don't know what's going to happen there. Civilians are caught in the middle. And as each side fragments, it becomes harder to imagine either side being able to coherently agree to a peace deal. So that's what we have to keep our eye on here as things begin to fray and get more complicated and less coherent on the ground.

RATH: Anne Barnard is the New York Times Beirut bureau chief, speaking with us from Beirut. Anne, thanks very much.

BARNARD: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.