TEL AVIV – A series of crucial defeats of the Syrian army has laid to rest any illusions that the government in Damascus is in control of its country. By spreading his forces thinly across Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has drastically reduced his capacity to win decisive battles, and he is now being forced to evacuate wide areas of the country to concentrate his army around Damascus and the Alawite enclave in the northwest. As it becomes clear that Assad is likely to lose the war, his closest allies – as well as world powers and regional players – are beginning to plan for the end game.
In late May, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, gave a speech that spoke volumes about the impact of the Syrian war on his organization. “The threat we face is existential,” Nasrallah said. “We now have three options: to expand the war and fight far more than we have fought in the last four years, to capitulate and be slaughtered, or to disperse throughout the world, walking humiliated and purposeless from catastrophe to catastrophe.”
More than 3,000 Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria, and another 4,000 have been injured. Syrian militants, including Islamic State fighters, have penetrated Lebanon, threatening to rekindle the country’s ethnic war and undermining Hezbollah’s legitimacy as the guarantor of its security. Assad’s fall would deny the organization its vital logistic hinterland in Syria, making it vulnerable to challenges by insurgent Sunni militias.
Iran, too, is likely to face a reckoning, as its ally in Damascus approaches defeat. The country’s strategic calculations are bound to have been affected by the ascension of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to the Saudi throne, a real game changer that has resulted in a shift of alliances among the region’s Sunni powers. Stronger ties among Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar – and the spectacular successes of the latter’s Sunni proxies in Syria – will put pressure on Iran to cut Assad loose or risk being drawn even deeper into the Syrian quagmire.