Case Analysis 11 June, 2015

The Transformation of the On-the-Ground Military Balance of Power in Syria: the Political Significance

Policy Analysis Unit

The Policy Analysis Unit is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Policy Analysis Unit draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Assessment Report, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Introduction  

Following a year of military setbacks throughout 2014, the armed Syrian opposition managed to change its on-the-ground military standing during the first five months of 2015, during which time positions held by the Syrian regime began falling like dominoes. Weighed down and drained by the fighting, the Syrian armed forces could no longer stop the advance of the opposition’s forces in some of the areas which were most vital to the Assad regime.

A Turnaround

The armed wing of the Syrian opposition was able to overturn the previous state of affairs with respect to the Syrian regime across the country by creating a series of joint command and control rooms that allowed them to unify and coordinate their military efforts. An example can be found in Aleppo, where the Damascene Front was formed towards the end of 2014 by the integration of a number of the most active and significant military formations operating in the northern regions of Syria. Within a few short weeks of the Damascene Front’s integration, bringing together such formations as the Noureddine Zanki Movement, the Islamic Front and the Army of the Mujahideen under its banner, this previously disparate set of groups succeeded in recapturing all of the territory which the opposition had lost to the Syrian regime over 2014. With their combined power, the Syrian opposition was able to push back the forces loyal to the Syrian regime and cancel out the threat they posed of cutting the Castillo Road, an opposition lifeline on the eastern fringes of Aleppo. Within the city, meanwhile, a coalition including Jabhat al Nusra and the Ansar Al Din Front, together with elements of the Damascene Front, succeeded in breaking through the regime’s final line of defense to the west of the city when they seized the Air Force Intelligence local headquarters and the military buildings surrounding it.  

In the south of the country, a broad coalition of some 50 different armed opposition groups used irregular warfare tactics to turn over the military advances secured by loyalists of the Syrian regime—including not only the regime’s regular forces but also irregular militia such as Lebanese Hezbollah, and the “Fatimids’ Regiment”. Previously, these regime loyalists had gained a large amount of territory on the nexus joining Tell Adas, Tell Al Musaih and An Naji in battles during February 10, 2015, making use of artillery support from the Syrian regime. By March 25, however, the opposition was able to capture the city of Busra, cutting off the supply lines between Suwaida and Deraa, as well as the road linking the Hezbollah control room in the Hauran Plateau. On April 1, armed opposition groups captured the Al Nuseib crossing, giving them control of all of Syria’s border crossings with Jordan.

While regime positions fell across the south of the country and in the environs of Aleppo, preparations for the battle over Idlib and the surrounding Idlib Province were underway. The opposition was able to conquer Idlib City in early April, 2015, a feat made possible by the creation of the Jaish Al Fateh formation—which included a number of Islamist and non-Islamist militia, most particularly Jabhat Al Nusra and Ahrar Al Sham—and by a series of military accomplishments, such as the capture by Jabhat Al Nusra and Ahrar Al Sham of  the Wadi Al Daif and Hamidia military bases, and laying siege to the Abu al Dhuhoor airbase, the last military airbase to remain in regime hands in the Idlib Province. With this final piece of the jigsaw puzzle in place, the battle for the overall control of Idlib Province was now underway. Following the conquest of the city of Idlib, the opposition push for the remaining cities in Idlib Province, including Jisr al Shughoor and Areeha could now begin. With these achievements behind them, the armed wing of the Syrian opposition was then freed to reignite conflict in erstwhile calm fronts.

Fighters from the Jaish Al Islam group based in the environs of Damascus thus began their offensive on the 39th Battalion stationed in Eastern Ghouta, which they placed under siege. The stage was also set for fighters from Ahrar Al Sham to lay siege to regime troops in the southern environs of Aleppo, and to capture a number of villages and hamlets along the Aleppo-Khanasser Highway, the lifeline for regime loyalists in the western rim of Aleppo. Likewise, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took this opportunity to take control of the city of Palmyra in the Syrian steppe on May 20, 2015. The capture of Palmyra afforded ISIL the ability to strangle regime forces centered in Deir ez Zor and its attached military air base, and to cut off the regime’s supply lines to Hama and Homs that run through the Syrian Desert.

A New Political and Military Reality 

These latest military achievements by the opposition will not lead to a final, decisive resolution of the conflict with the regime. Nonetheless, they do provide for a completely new military and political reality. The regime’s military gains during 2014 came at a time when its regional allies openly supported it, and, simultaneously, when international support for the opposition had evaporated as the West focused exclusively on the battle against ISIL and other jihadist groups. These factors served to bolster the Syrian regime’s confidence in its ability to achieve a decisive military victory. Now, and for the first time since the outbreak of an armed conflict in Syria, the regime appears to be in a defensive state where it is compelled to preserve its continued presence. Today, the gains by the armed opposition have revealed the extent to which the Syrian regime’s military forces have atrophied, showing just how reliant they were on foreign militia and undoing the Assad forces’ rhetoric. Compounding the situation for the Assad regime, its forces are unable to persuade regional allies that it is capable of prevailing in the military conflict, which Damascus had previously held on to as a strict precondition for any discussions leading to a negotiated settlement of the Syrian crisis.

Alongside these military setbacks, the Syrian regime is also suffering economically, given the dramatic decline in the international trading value of the Syrian Lira and the Syrian Central Bank’s inability to stall such declines, despite efforts by the Central Bank in Damascus to pump foreign currency reserves into the Syrian market. An exodus of Syrian businessmen and investors continues unabated, while there are clear indications of a growing conflict in the country’s tight-knit state security community following the deaths of a number of key military figures and the Political Security Division Chief, Rustom Ghazali, in as-yet unexplained circumstances. As a result, the regime’s grassroots support base along the Syrian coast and in the region surrounding Homs is beginning to panic as it watches the approach of ISIL and other opposition forces. Remarkably, President Bashar Al Assad made a personal appearance in front of a group of his supporters, who he asked to help raise the morale of the army, and to combat the “conspiratorial propaganda” which sought to discredit the regime’s military’s capability to “bring the war to an end”.

In contrast to this reality, the Syrian regime has succeeded, in the global arena, in diverting attention from the true causes of the Syrian crisis and in focusing attention on the canard of “combatting extremism and terrorism”, thereby presenting itself as an ally in the battle against ISIL and other jihadist groups. Statements by UN envoy Staffan De Mistura to the effect that the conflict in Aleppo should be paused while the regime and armed opposition groups jointly confront ISIL further served to divert attention from any possible comprehensive and holistic solution to the Syrian crisis, as was proposed at Geneva II in 2012. In the wake of the Paris attacks, a strong current of Western opinion openly called for the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime by the international community, so as to avoid reliance on a rag-tag political opposition and a number of “armed militants” whose dependability was dubious given how easily they were routed by Jabhat Al Nusra forces. Programs to train the armed wing of the Syrian opposition also came under additional scrutiny, given growing disagreements between the U.S. administration and some of its regional allies over the exact role which the newly trained fighting groups were expected to assume, in terms of combatting ISIL. All of these hypothetical considerations, however, were washed away with the regime’s losses in Palmyra, Aleppo and Idlib, losses which the opposition was able to capitalize on by routing the regime’s forces entirely from Aleppo and moving against the Assad loyalists’ forces in the environs of Hama and the Ghab Plain.

The rapid deterioration of the Syrian regime’s military capabilities led to a thawing of relations between Washington and Moscow, both of whom needed to communicate over the Syrian crisis following a hiatus that lasted more than 12 months, caused by the collapse of the Geneva II process as well as disagreements over the Ukraine crisis. Soon enough, Moscow, who had previously encouraged the Syrian regime to secure a military victory against the opposition and to circumvent the Geneva I process, began talking about the need to find a political solution to the crisis. In parallel, the United States, motivated by fear that jihadist groups would replace the Assad regime, acted to ensure that the Syrian regime did not entirely collapse in its remaining strongholds. These efforts resulted in a visit by John Kerry to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a bid to revitalize the negotiations process surrounding Syria.

Conclusion

Recent military gains by the armed Syrian opposition have ruined any chances for the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime, and its acceptance as an international partner in the battle against ISIL. They have also put paid to the possibility of the regime imposing its conditions and those of its allies on the opposition. The recent military gains by the armed Syrian opposition and the prospect of a complete fall of the Syrian regime have created anxieties on the part of both the allies and the enemies of the Syrian opposition alike. It now behooves the Syrian opposition, and particularly its political wing, to formulate a program to replace not only the Syrian regime but ISIL as well. Such a program must include a transitional phase founded on the participation of the Syrian people, and assurances that the opposition would be capable of both stabilizing any chaos resulting from the fall of the Assad regime as well as integrating all sections of the Syrian population in a future, pluralistic political system. The implementation of such a program would necessarily be guaranteed by a number of global and regional powers. All other alternatives, such as the total collapse of the Syrian regime, or a prolonging of the conflict to the point where no decisive conclusion is foreseeable, would lead only to continued human suffering and the rise of ever more desperate radicalization. 

 

To read this Assessment Report as a PDF, please click here. This Report was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on June 7, 2015, please click here.