In a speech delivered on July 26, 2015 in the Syrian capital, Damascus, President Bashar Al-Assad acknowledged for the first time since the conflict began in 2011 that the government lacks the military prowess needed to maintain control over all of Syria.
Citing “military priorities,” Assad admitted that it was necessary to cede control over less strategic cities, like Idlib, in order to maintain power in other, more important areas surrounding Damascus, according to Al Jazeera. Assad also expressed adamant opposition to dividing Syria, saying he would be willing to participate in talks and other diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the war.
Less than one year later, however, on June 7, 2016, Assad delivered a markedly different speech before the Syrian parliament. This time, Assad boasted about his military successes, dismissed the idea of peace talks as “booby-trapped,” and claimed he would fight to liberate “every inch” of Syria, stating “we have no other choice but to win,” according to The New York Times.
These contradictory statements have led many to question Assad’s lucidity. But what is behind Assad’s change of heart, and why now?
While reconquering “every inch” of Syria certainly seems farfetched, especially since the government has lost control over more than half of the country, Assad’s June 7 speech is not as capricious as it may seem. Since Russia intensified its military campaign in Syria, beginning on September 30, 2015, Assad has gained the political and military leverage he lacked a year ago. This is precisely why Assad managed to recapture the city of Palmyra from ISIS last March. Without active Russian support, it is difficult to imagine how Assad could have retaken the city.
Commenting on this in a recent article published by the Atlantic Council, Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the think tank, argued that the “most significant military development between [Assad’s] two speeches is Russia’s entry into the war.” As Itani claimed, while Assad cannot reclaim all of Syria, “his nearer goal of ending the insurgency as a strategic threat to his regime” has now become possible.
With increased Russian support and greater infighting among rebel groups, Assad has been able to more easily stifle the opposition. As Itani argued, “Russia is in Syria only to break the opposition’s will and force it to make terms with Assad, not reconquer the country for him”; while Assad’s allies “will not and cannot deliver all of Syria to him…they may well deliver enough of it” to keep him in power.
As long as this is the case, Assad can continue to boast about “liberating all of Syria” while he focuses on the more limited strategy of dismantling enemy networks.