Since the Syrian conflict began, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus has suffered some major setbacks – losing control of the largest city Aleppo, the rise of so-called Islamic State in the east, and, most recently, the loss of a second provincial capital, Idlib.
But while Assad’s forces have been willing to retreat from certain areas, they have shown a fierce determination to hold onto territory around the capital Damascus and the coastal heartlands of his minority Alawite sect.
Late last month, Assad admitted his troops were stretched and suggested that the military had surrendered some ground to focus on other priorities. Many interpreted the speech as announcing the government had effectively given up on large parts of the country in order to consolidate its support in the centre and west of the country.
Yet a new assault by Islamic State (ISIS) threatens to tear even that mini-state in two. If the militants could successfully bisect the main road from Damascus to the provinces, it could mean big trouble for the regime and provoke a mass exodus of civilians from pro-government areas.
The M5 highway, which runs from Damascus to the central city of Homs and then on to Aleppo, is a vital artery for the Assad regime, both for moving supplies to its forces and goods to its citizens.
Rebels have already taken parts of the stretch between Homs and Aleppo. ISIS and other rebel groups have tried and failed several times already over the past few years to claim control of part of the main section between Homs and Damascus. It remains only a possibility, but in recent days, Assad’s forces have sustained significant losses and look weaker than ever.
Last week, ISIS seized Qaryatain, leaving government forces wrong-footed and exposed. The town itself is some 50 kilometers from the M5, but the Islamists have made further gains and are now just 35 kilometers west of the highway, according to Columb Strack, Senior Middle East Analyst at the IHS think-tank. At the same time, a smaller number of ISIS fighters has advanced from northern Lebanon and are now only five kilometers from the road.
Strack said ISIS is seeking to “dominate a section of the M5 highway, which would significantly disrupt Syrian troop movements between the northern and southern frontlines.”
If the Islamist fighters could manage to bisect the road, the coastal cities of Tartous and Latakia – Assad’s home region and support base – would be effectively cut off from the capital.
Recent losses near the highway fit within a wider trend of Syrian government defeats across the country, as the overstretched army struggles to compete. It has increasingly relied on foreign groups such as the Lebanese militia Hezbollah to maintain its dominance, but even these fighters have made limited gains. A Hezbollah-led force is still struggling to retake the town of Zabadani near the Lebanese border despite months of trying.
Joshua Landis, founder of the Syria Comment website, said it was “absolutely crucial” for Assad that his forces keep hold of the road.
“This regime’s entire strategy is to keep the Alawites and the urban centers of Damascus, Homs and the coastal cities,” he said. “If they lose that road which connects those cities together that strategy crumbles.”
He said the government would fight tooth-and-nail to hold it, pulling back troops from other less strategic places if necessary. “They have other places they can withdraw troops from. They can abandon Aleppo. They can abandon Deraa,” he said.
Any ISIS gains on the major highway are likely to be met by Syrian airstrikes to try to drive the Islamists back. But if the road itself is embroiled in the conflict, trade and resupply will become difficult if not impossible.
“[ISIS] may well push onto the road and claim control, but are unlikely to be able to hold positions there for more than several days at most if the government deploys significant reinforcements to the area,” Strack said. “However, (ISIS) would probably retain the capacity to attack government forces along the road with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or with indirect fire.”
Mustafa*, a driver who until recently travelled up and down the highway, said he was aware of the threat from ISIS but would likely continue to make the journey. “People need work, so there are young men still taking the route.”
The next exodus?
If ISIS did bisect the highway, Strack said the “Alawite heartland” would not suddenly collapse as it is well defended. And although there would be an impact on supplies reaching the area, he pointed out that Latakia has direct access to the Lebanese border and the sea so food could be brought in via other routes.
However, Landis warned that any sustained loss of the road would likely provoke panic in pro-regime areas.
Four million Syrians have already fled the country since the civil war began in 2011, but those living in pro-government areas have largely stayed put. Many displaced Syrians have also fled to the relative calm of the coastal cities. If ISIS seized part of the main highway, it could set off a new wave of departures.
“A lot of people in these areas are already talking about it [leaving to Lebanon],” said Landis.
“If the Alawite mountains start to fall, the cities will collapse and there will be widespread panic,” he said. “I don’t think it is imminent but it could happen.”
*Name has been changed to protect his identity