Five years after the uprising in Syria began, a renewed chance to steer the conflict in a less violent trajectory presents itself. Tensions have mounted between moderate rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra in northern Syria, and residents demonstrated in support of the rebels against the al-Qaeda affiliate; the Free Syrian Army has recently launched an offensive against the Islamic State in southern Syria; and Russia has announced that it will start withdrawing its main forces from the country. In the wake of positive sentiments following a semi-successful cessation of hostilities deal, the United States should capitalize on the current environment to de-escalate the conflict and shift its focus toward extremists. The Russian air campaign that began in September, while substantially improving the government’s ability to launch offensives and repulse attacks, has serious limitations and has not been the overwhelming victory that the regime would like to portray. In this context, the U.S. now has a compelling opportunity to act as counterbalance.
In a speech on July 26, 2015, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made three uncharacteristic remarks that underscored the toll that four years of armed conflict had had on the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and foreshadowed the dramatic entry of the Russian military into the theater some two months later. The first confession was that the SAA was suffering from “fatigue,” “demoralization,” and a “shortage in manpower.” Secondly, he spoke of the necessity for the army to cede control of certain areas, even if that territory appears significant to the regime’s support base. “In some cases, we have to abandon certain areas to move forces to an area we want to hold.” Finally, Assad highlighted the central role of foreign Shi’a militias in the war. He thanked Hezbollah and other foreign militias fighting on the side of the regime. He said that Hezbollah had the experience and skills needed to battle opposition fighters, and proclaimed, “A homeland is not for those who live in it or hold its passport, but those who defend it and protect it.”
The Russian air campaign that began in September did not put an end to the SAA’s underlying challenges. The regime’s forces are still thinly stretched, and much of the recent fighting in northern and southern Syria has been spearheaded by foreign Shi’a militias, notably the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi Hezbollah al-Nujabah, and Afghan fighters. However, the presence of these militias has helped make up for the regime’s overstretched forces in areas like Aleppo, and the opposition’s forces were weakened as a result of the Russian bombardment. Even as concrete results for the Russian campaign were not evident in the early days and weeks of the airstrikes, many of the opposition’s powerful factions expressed a sense of confusion and helplessness about how to deal with the ferocious air campaign.
The opposition’s ability to deploy forces or even hold territory diminished with the appearance of the Russian onslaught, and the regime’s manpower became a less decisive factor. In November, the regime broke the sieges of the Kweiris Air Base and the Shi’a towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa. In February, they cut rebel supply lines between Aleppo and Turkey and seized dozens of towns in Aleppo, Latakia, Hama, and Deraa. Some pundits have asserted that the regime was close to retaking Aleppo and Idlib and even advancing eastward to take Raqqa and Palmyra. Assad fanned these analyses by saying he was determined to take all of Syria. Both the United States and Russia, however, denounced the statement after agreeing to support a cessation of hostilities. The deal, which excludes the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, went into effect on February 27 and has largely held, despite wide expectations to the contrary.
A Turning Point
That the Russian entry into Syria is a turning point in the conflict in Syria is indubitable. The Russians’ military firepower has significantly boosted the regime’s ability to plan and execute its battles relative to the situation a year ago. Before September, the rebels captured territory from the regime with relative ease, executing a series of successful campaigns from December 2014 to April 2015. Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham took Wadi al-Dhaif, the country’s largest military complex in the north, and moved later under the banner of Jaish al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) to take the cities of Idlib in March and Jisr al-Shughour in April. Other rebel groups then pushed further south to capture villages in Hama province’s al-Ghab plain. Similar advances were made in southern Syria. In May, the Islamic State defeated the SAA in Palmyra in central Syria and pushed west and south.
So far, the regime forces have captured a fraction of those areas they lost over the year prior to Russian intervention. (According to the British defense think-tank IHS Jane’s, the regime lost 16 percent of its territory in that period). But the Russian military has enabled the regime to end the trend of swift defeats. From September to February, the Russian air forces concentrated airstrikes in three fronts to secure the regime, namely Hama’s northern countryside, along a line from northern Latakia to Aleppo, and from southern Aleppo toward Raqqa. The effort substantially weakened the rebels near Latakia and isolated them in northern Aleppo. Recent military gains made by anti-government forces were typically lost within a few hours, such as Jabhat al-Nusra’s March 8 assaults in southern Aleppo.
A Closer Look
While the regime’s military position is improved, it is imperative not to lose sight of the constraints on the ground that make it hard for the regime to even retake the territory it lost last year. Russia’s air support to the regime has indeed substantially propped up the SAA and bolstered its ability to launch offensives and repulse attacks, but that does not necessarily mean the government is capable of winning the war. The SAA continues to suffer from the same challenges that forced it to lose around two-thirds of the country and to rely on foreign and local paramilitary forces—foreign and local—to defend and secure the remaining third. To understand the army’s constraints, consider a battle near Damascus that took place just after the Russians intervened in Syria. While attention has been focused on how the Russian air campaign played out in northern Syria, that battle was the earliest example of how the campaign helped the Assad government push back against rebel forces.
A week after the Russian air campaign kicked off, rebels near Damascus launched an attack eight months in the making. The offensive, led by Salafist group Jaish al-Islam, was designed to cut the Damascus-Homs highway near the capital, secure the rebel-held towns, and break the government siege there. The battle took place near the capital, where the regime’s most elite forces operate and where mobilization of foreign Shi’a militias is easier (due to the symbolism of Shi’a holy sites on the outskirts of Damascus). Despite the government’s well-prepared defenses, the rebels were able to seize a key position within hours and overrun numerous government installations, forcing the regime to deploy reinforcements from nearby areas. The battle lasted for 60 days, during which Russian airstrikes played a key role in helping the regime secure or retake contested areas.
Despite the successful counterattack, the episode illustrated the limits of the government’s military capabilities, even in the area where it has its greatest concentration of troops. Assad’s forces relied almost exclusively on intensive airstrikes to retake the bases, often completely ruining them. The rebels have controlled new areas and successfully preempted a rumored offensive by the regime in the rebel-held Ghouta region. Most damningly for Damascus, the rebels who executed the offensive had been territorially isolated, away from border areas, and under relentless siege for more than three years. Unlike other rebel forces elsewhere in the country, the opposition in Ghouta does not have direct supply lines from neighboring countries, which further shows the limits of cutting supply lines from Aleppo.
Whether in Aleppo, eastern Syria, or southern Syria near the Jordanian border, the regime is more constrained by terrain and resources than it is in the areas near Damascus. Even if the SAA prioritizes populated areas like Aleppo and concentrates its forces to retake them, the effort will likely face tremendous challenges and take time. Northern Syria is even more challenging than Ghouta because the north, from Latakia to Qamashli, is more militarized than the rest of the country. Northern Syria provides a large number of fighters for both the regime and the opposition. For the regime, those fighters help secure Hama, Latakia, and the parts of Aleppo under government control. Elsewhere, much of the regime fighting in recent months has been led by foreign militias. Such militias can conduct surgical attacks and incursions in rebel-held areas, but they have to be mobile, which means the regime will still have to deploy regular forces to control a newly captured area.
Truce or Ruse?
The gains made by SAA-aligned forces in November and February provided the regime with the military and political momentum to redouble its efforts against the opposition. Ordinarily, the regime would capitalize on the gains and increase the intensity of the air campaign to further disperse the rebels. But Damascus agreed to comply with the cessation of hostilities deal supported by Russia and the United States. The deal gave pause to initial expectations that the SAA would continue its march against the rebels. As for Russia’s surprise announcement of a withdrawal, it remains to be seen how serious they are about extracting themselves from the fighting. It is an attempt to reflect success given the recent political and military momentum, in the form of military advances and the cessation of hostilities. But the announcement could also be read as a tacit acknowledgement of failure, since the campaign has so far taken six months without a meaningful expansion of territory for the Assad government.
The opposition remains skeptical of the peace talks, fearing that Moscow seeks to mobilize regional and international powers around an open-ended and shaky political track. Rebels often cite increased cooperation between Jordan and Russia and the quiet front near the Jordanian border as an example to buttress their fears. On the other hand, most rebel factions indicated that they were willing to strike ceasefire deals with Moscow but not with the regime. This sentiment was on display when Jaish al-Islam accepted the first Russian proposal for a ceasefire in December after it had rejected around 30 similar offers by the regime. They perceive Russia as more credible than the regime, even though they continue to view it as invested in the survival of Assad. They and many others in the opposition have little trust in Russia’s commitment to finding a fair settlement to the conflict, but believe it is ultimately more prepared than the regime to engage in reasonable measures to de-escalate the war.
The United States’ Role
This is where the U.S. can be most useful. Washington should demonstrate that it is willing to serve as a real counterbalance to Russia, vested in supporting the opposition to reach an acceptable resolution with the regime. Rebels fear that the ongoing process is dictated entirely by Russia and that the U.S. has no interest in supporting the opposition. The fact that Russia was pounding the rebels in Aleppo and Damascus while the U.S.-backed YPG (the Kurdish People’s Protection Units) attacked the opposition reinforced such fears.
For the foreseeable future, the regime will be unable to recapture all the areas it lost last year, much less the whole country, due to a lack of resources and credibility. The rebels see a chance to engage in a political process to halt aerial bombardments of their areas, release prisoners, and end starvation and sieges. They view Russia as a player they could deal with: they cite a contrast, for example, between two deals struck by the government and anti-government forces before and after the Russian intervention.
Before the Russian intervention, Iran brokered a ceasefire deal in a dozen towns in northern and southern Syria between the regime and Hezbollah on one hand and hardline groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham on the other. The approach taken by Iran throughout the conflict, rebels say, often engaged extremist forces and overlooked mainstream groups. In contrast, Russia brokered a cessation of hostilities deal with the opposition and excluded Jabhat al-Nusra. The current Russian approach, they hope, is different from the previous one, especially if the U.S. acts as their political patron internationally. The ball is in Washington’s court.