by Derek Davison
Several recent events suggest that the tide in Syria’s four-year-long civil war may be decisively turning away from President Bashar al-Assad and toward a coalition of rebel forces. In late March, rebels succeeded in capturing the important northern city of Idlib from Assad, giving them a new base of operations and control over most of Idlib Province. Then, in late April, a rebel offensive captured the city of Jisr al-Shughur, also in Idlib Province, potentially opening up the port city of Latakia to rebel attack, and thus cutting off one of the government’s main supply routes supporting its forces in and around Aleppo. The rebels appear to have continued their advance on Latakia after seizing control of a Syrian army base at Qarmeed last week.
It would be premature to declare Assad finished, but these recent losses are a serious blow to his war aims. University of Oklahoma Syria expert Joshua Landis recently told Aaron David Miller of Foreign Policy that, although the conflict is “far from over,” the defeats in Idlib Province “may force Assad to work for a de facto partition of the country, rather than maintaining his ‘all corners’ strategy’” that was premised on the idea that Assad could, eventually, regain control over the entire country. Of course, even establishing a de facto partition would require both sides to go along. At this point it seems unlikely that Islamist fighters, who (as Landis says) are bent on conquering the entire country, would settle for controlling part of it. Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has argued that the Assad regime is beginning to feel the effects of attrition over the course of the four-year-long war. Its inability to replace lost manpower has left it unable to take the offensive or to defend anything beyond its central zone of control. The regime also has suffered from dissension both within its ranks and among its core Alawite supporters.
Allowing for the fact that Assad has been weakened by his recent setbacks but nowhere near beaten, the shifting fortunes of the conflict pose several issues for American and international policymakers. Foremost among these issues has to be the ongoing plight of Syria’s civilians, who may be in for even greater violence from an Assad regime that feels its back against the wall. A recent Amnesty International report detailed the effects of the government’s repeated barrel bomb attacks in Aleppo, which have killed 3,124 civilians (to only 35 rebel fighters) since January of last year. This is to say nothing about Syrian civilians living in areas of the country controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), who are at risk both from IS itself and from US airstrikes. It seems increasingly unlikely that IS can be removed from Syria amid the ongoing general chaos caused by the civil war.
Of equal concern for Washington is the nature of a post-Assad Syria. For all of its repeated insistences that “Assad must go” as part of a final settlement to Syria’s civil war, the Obama administration clearly sees Assad as a lesser evil than the Islamist groups, particularly IS or the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, that might take control of the country. Although IS’s gains in Syria seem to have leveled off, the rebel coalition that won those key victories in Idlib Province, known as the “Army of Conquest,” is dominated by Nusra. Working alongside the ideologically similar Islamic Front and a few much smaller and weaker secularist groups that have reportedly received US aid, Nusra has been allegedly planning to establish an “emirate” in Idlib for months. US-aligned groups are already talking about limiting the power of Islamists in the aftermath of their recent victories, and there are real concerns about what an Islamist takeover would mean for Syria’s minorities, particularly its Alawite population. There have been recent rumors that Nusra’s leaders have considered severing the group’s ties to al-Qaeda in order to enable some kind of working relationship with Washington. But even if it took that step it remains to be seen whether the US would be willing to directly aid a group that still largely shares al-Qaeda’s philosophy.
Despite these concerns, the US appears to be no closer to implementing a Syria strategy than it was four years ago. Plans, months in the making, to train and equip a large force of moderate rebels to fight IS, appear to be collapsing before they even get under way. It was a dubious strategy in the first place, given the challenge of separating moderates from Islamists and given the fact that even moderate rebels see Assad, not IS, as their primary enemy. Complicating matters for the administration is the fact that regional US allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, have begun openly aiding the Nusra-led coalition with money and advanced weaponry, though they insist that this aid is only going to moderate elements of the coalition and will enable them to establish an equal footing with their Islamist counterparts. It is not at all clear how those nations plan to ensure that their aid only winds up in the hands of moderates, or whether their definition of “moderate” aligns with Washington’s.
The Obama administration continues to push for a negotiated settlement to the fighting through another round of peace talks in Geneva. Although such negotiations offer the best chance of minimizing future civilian casualties and managing the post-Assad transition, it is difficult to see how these talks can have any chance of success when they exclude those Islamist groups who are currently the dominant rebel force on the ground. Meanwhile, the usual suspects in Congress continue to rattle sabers for an American invasion of Syria, an idea that risks, to say the least, violating President Obama’s “don’t do stupid ****” principle.
Of further consideration in ending the war is the role of Iran, without whose support Assad might already have been defeated. If Tehran continues to prop Assad up, it could enable him to establish that “de facto partition” and draw the fighting out for months or even years to come, further immiserating the Syrian people and potentially allowing Islamists to complete their takeover of the rebel coalition. If, on the other hand, Iran could be convinced that Assad is no longer worth supporting, that could go a long way toward finally ending the civil war and removing Assad from the equation.
Photo: adapted from Freedom House via Flickr