Assad's army stretched but still seen strong in Syria's war

Assad's army stretched but still seen strong in Syria's war

BEIRUT - Syria's army declared a victory against insurgents last week when it pushed back their advance towards pro-government towns in the west of the country. But a month earlier the strategic area did not even appear at risk.

The campaign near Hama against al Qaeda-linked fighters and other groups shows how the Syrian military can quickly redeploy its forces to push back enemies using its superior fire power. But it also shows how the army is spread thinly in Syria, leaving at risk even areas of vital importance to the government.

The fighting near Hama, 200 km (125 miles) north of Damascus, is not over: rebels on Wednesday took back two villages captured by the government a day earlier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war, reported.

Western officials believe the Syrian army, already stretched, has been under growing strain since Islamic State staged lightening advances in Syria and Iraq in June: insurgents this week briefly pushed into an area of Damascus that had not seen fighting for 18 months, the Observatory reported.

Shi'ite Iraqi militiamen who had been fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad's forces have been recalled to Iraq to fight Islamic State, while the group has also opened new fronts against government forces in Syria.

Defeats, including the capture of an air base where Islamic State executed scores of Syrian soldiers, have stirred rare public dissent in loyalist circles about the government's tactics - a potential pressure point for the Syrian leader.

But more than three years into the conflict, Assad's allies warn against underestimating the strength of pro-government forces and their ability to endure with the help of powerful friends, notably the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah.

"The Syrian army can fight for the coming 10 years," a Lebanese politician allied to the Syrian government and with detailed knowledge of the conflict in Syria said.

As Washington draws up plans to train more than 5,000 Syrian rebels as part of its strategy to fight Islamic State, military experts say the Syrian army looks set to remain the strongest player in a war that has killed more than 191,000 people.

That means the debate over whether Western states should engage Damascus in the fight against Islamic State is unlikely to die down any time soon. Western governments, seeing Assad as part of the problem, have ruled out the idea.

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