Territory fully controlled by President Assad’s forces has shrunk by 18% between 1 January and 10 August 2015 to 29,797 km2, roughly a sixth of the country, according to the latest data insights produced by IHS Conflict Monitor.
In a recently televised speech, President Assad admitted it was necessary to focus on holding certain areas of greater strategic importance, while sacrificing others. The key areas which Assad cannot afford to lose include the capital Damascus, the Alawite coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartous, and the city of Homs as the vital connection between them. These are likely to be defended, even at the expense of losing other major cities like Aleppo or Dar’a.
Assad also stated that manpower shortages were the greatest challenge to the government’s war effort. The Syrian Army is believed to have lost around 50% of its pre-war strength of 300,000. Many of the remaining soldiers are very young Alawite conscripts, sent to the front lines with minimal training and low morale.
For more than a year, the government has been carrying out spot checks on young men in the streets of Alawite cities, according to an IHS source in Latakia. Those unable to provide a valid exemption from service are immediately detained and enrolled in the army.
A day before his speech, President Assad issued a pardon to anyone who had evaded military service, on the condition that they enrol or re-join the army. This indicates that the government no longer has the capacity to replace soldiers killed or wounded with Syrians, and will become even more reliant on foreign fighters to bolster its ranks.
Increased territorial losses suffered by the government since March 2015 are most likely a direct result of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar stepping up their support for Sunni groups, and creating new powerful coalitions such as Jaysh al-Fatah.
However, there is another factor which is likely to drive further government losses over the coming months. The Islamic State is seeking to expand operations in western Syria, and extend its territorial control from the recently seized Palmyra area to the Lebanese border.
Islamic State fighters crossed from Lebanon on 20 July, seizing control from Hizbullah and Syrian government forces in the mountainous Tallat Na’imat area, near the border south of Homs. They have since used the area to besiege the Syrian Army's 67th Brigade base, which lies adjacent to the M5 highway, the main transport link between Damascus and the city of Homs. The Islamic State is also approaching the same area from the east, where it took control of Qariyatayn on 5 August.
Due to its key strategic significance, government forces will most likely redeploy significant resources from other front lines to the M5 highway, in order to prevent the remaining government-held areas in western Syria from being divided.
Even if government forces are successful in defending their core territory against the Islamic State, it will probably come at the expense of losing further territory on the periphery in the coming weeks and months, most likely including the southern city of Dar’a.
The IHS Conflict Monitor records about 1,000 manually geocoded indicator events for Syria and Iraq every week from social media and other open sources, feeding into a dataset that reaches back to January 2014. The Monitor includes regular analysis of the data by IHS experts, delivering unique insight into the tactics, activities and capabilities of armed actors, as well as mapping the progression of the conflict in unprecedented detail.