By Patrick BAHZAD
"Just when I Thought I was out,
They pull me back in!»
The Godfather – Part III (1990)
You have got to wonder if that is what Bashar al-Assad is thinking somehow at the moment. Considering the string of victories he's pulling together in the fight against ISIS, while Jabhat al-Nusra and friends are trying to "backstabb" his army in Idlib country, he may certainly get the impression some of his foes will never let go. Such a view would be misguided though, as the days of the "moderate" Islamist rebels are numbered.
To those, on the other hand, who might resent the implications of quoting a movie mobster as comparison for the head of the Syrian Arab Republic, make no mistake, Assad and his clan are gangsters, just as any Middle-Eastern government recognized by the West. So let us not get into the morality debate of whether or not he deserves to be where he is.
I will gladly leave that discussion to the neo-Con, neo-Wilsonian and R2P crew! The question, for now, is not what should have been done differently four or five years ago, but what should be done today and what is likely to happen, so we do not end up with a mess even bigger than the one we helped create in the last few years.
The Game Changer
Looking back at the developments that took place after the Russian decided to put boots on the ground (and planes in the air), it must be obvious even to the most determined anti-Assad proponents that there is way around him anymore. In the six months of their campaign, the Russians managed to turn the tables on the opposition, for the regime would have been on its way out, were it not for the massive boost the SAA and its allies received thanks to Russian airstrikes, weapons' deliveries and military training. And while the analysts of the "percentage war" might still be busy doing the math about how much (or, in their eyes, how little) territory Assad and Co have regained with Putin’s help, the whole dynamics and momentum of the war definitely changed after October 1st 2015.
Once a deal was reached with the Jordanians, so as to keep a lid on large parts of the Southern Front, the R+6 proceeded to irredeemably degrade the so-called moderate rebels in North-Western Syria. Although they had the means and the tactical opportunity to strike a devastating blow early in 2016, in a kind WWII "Kesselschlacht", the Russians finally decided against it, out of diplomatic and political considerations. If you want Assad to be able to reach out and look a reasonable enough statesman figure, you have got to leave some opposition on the ground in order to claim at least some credibility in upcoming elections.
Besides, the different factions in the Idlib to Aleppo area are so fragmented, with Jabhat al-Nusra – i.e. Al Qaeda – firmly in the driving seat, that this might still prove a very smart move, to leave opponents slug it out among themselves. Basically, another variation of the old "divide and rule". The surviving FSA groups, in particular the same Division 13 that was robbed of all its gear a week earlier, might still side with JaN when they decide it's time for yet another hopeless offensive against regime positions in South-West Aleppo, but to the civilian population as a whole, the gap is probably widening between groups wishing to come to a negotiated settlement with the Assad loyalists (not a surrender) and those "die hards" of Jihad who want to fight onto the last Syrian.
Resumption of Hostilities by JaN and Div 13
From that point of view, the resumption of hostilities both by JaN and Division 13 is likely to induce further internal strife among an opposition that is already divided, if you set aside the Saudi backed proxy groups under the influence of Jaysh al-Islam. The downing of a SyAF jet earlier today will only contribute to making the local opposition look less reliable to the international community, as well as deeply influenced by Jihadi splinter groups or affiliates of Al Qaeda central.
Maybe it’s no coincidence Al Qaeda old timer Abu Firas was taken out – with a number of fellow “Jabhat al-Nusra” and “Jund al-Aqsa” leaders – by a US airstrike, days only after the failed rebel counter-attack. There is no evidence for this of course, but the Pentagon Spokesman made it clear yesterday during his press briefing that the US considered Al Qaeda and its affiliates to be “fair game” and that Jabhat al-Nusra was in that regard pretty much “one and the same” with their head-office.
The jury is still out on the implications of such a statement, but the truth is that never before, especially not since the Russian intervention, has there been a US airstrike that far up in North-Western Syria, against a gathering of Jihadi leaders of very serious stature. Of course, there have been strikes before, targeting Al Qaeda’s controversial “Khorasan Group” on several occasions, both in 2014 and in 2015, or “Ahrar al-Sham” in 2014. But the closest strike the US have launched is near Aleppo and that was in July 2015, i.e. before the Russians upgraded and integrated the Syrian air defence system.
In other words, this strike must at least have been coordinated with the R+6, using the agreed on protocols. In my opinion, the message this sends to rebel groups in the North-West is clear: playtime is over! There’s a sheriff in town, actually two of them, and it looks like they intend to enforce the rules. Come to think of it, you might even suspect that it could have been a deliberate move to target Abu Firas and his crew through a US airstrike, so as not to give the rebels any more ground for further cease-fire breach, in case the RuAf or SyAF stepped in and started pounding Idlib countryside again. What will come out of this is uncertain, but it is more than likely that none of it will strengthen the Islamists’ case against Assad.
Assad Fighting ISIS
Another aspect which is not going to help the rebels' PR-campaign is the regime's highly successful offensive against the Islamic State. For months, even years, we have been spoon-fed the story according to which Assad and ISIS were two sides to the same coin. Worse, Assad had created ISIS and only if he left was there a chance of fixing the ISIS issue. I have always wondered how anybody in his right mind could come up with that twisted a logic and still get such a warm reception in so many parts of the world.
The Islamic State, in its present form, has been around since 2006 at least. It was born in Iraq, which still is its centre of gravity, and a large number of its most senior executives are Iraqis. The Islamic State’s expansion into Syria is as much the result of some cynical moves made by the Syrian regime (in particular the release of Islamist detainees early in 2011), as it is the end-product of sectarian politics in Iraq (where Sunnis still feel pretty much second-class citizens), US failure to properly deal with the issue when they still had the chance and Western blindness as to what was at stake in the region in general. Add to this the Saudi war by proxy against Iran, as well as neo-Ottoman thoughts of “grandeur”, and you get a highly volatile environment.
But now, that narrative of "Assad must go", combined with "Assad is not fighting ISIS" has lost a lot of traction. Probably even more so among ordinary people in Western Europe and the United States than among elites and an establishment that has been busy selling us the pipedream of a democratic and peaceful future for Syria. Sadly, there was never any chance the toppling of Assad by the opposition would end in anything else than large-scale bloodshed, death and chaos. Libya by contrast would look like a walk in the park compared to what Syria would have turned into, if the regime change crowd had had it their way.
Victory at Palmyra
Be that as it may, nobody can deny the fact that the SAA is now the only Arab army inflicting one defeat after the other to the Caliphate's armies: the first of those, probably more symbolic than anything else at that point, was lifting the three-year siege of Kweires airbase, back in November 2015. This victory, largely underestimated by our very own armchair strategists, gave a huge boost to the morale of the SAA, and its foreign allies (Hezbollah, IRGC and Iraqi or Afghan Shia militias).
Fast-forward to March 2016 and what you see unfold is the result of the multipronged strategy implemented under Russian guidance: an international negotiation mechanism has been agreed to, with all its flaws, but it has enabled the regime to move forces from the North-West into the Centre-East of the country, putting ISIS under so much pressure that it finally crumbled first in Palmyra, and now in Qaryatayn.
Pushing the Jihadis out of Palmyra was undoubtedly the biggest of Assad’s victories so far, also from a PR point of view. There has been some debate about whether it made more sense for the SAA to go for Palmyra first, instead of Tabqa, which would have opened the road to Raqqa, the Caliphate’s capital in Syria. Overall however, the choice of an offensive towards Palmyra made much more sense: Assad managed to claim back a piece of world heritage from "the barbarians", which gave him extra press and media cover at a time he needed to boost his image during the latest round of Geneva negotiations.
Tabqa in comparison might only have gotten him 1/10 of coverage in the international media, even though it is much more important militarily, and gives quicker access to IS LOCs to and from Raqqa. So it was basically down to choosing between what made most sense militarily and what could be used best in Geneva and as PR. Also, the chances of quick military victory at Palmyra stood much better than a thrust into 40 miles of desert road that could lead to the same kind of skirmishes and ISIS raids than the Khanasser road into Aleppo.
The Way Ahead
Developments in North-Western Syria, where JaN and Div 13 of the FSA decided to go "all in" will not alter the equation fundamentally. At this point, they have become a sideshow that will not be tolerated, not by the Russians and Syrians, and not by the US either, which may come more as a surprize to JaN's backers in the region. At best they can achieve minor frontline corrections, but nothing of the scale necessary to modify the balance of power.
Obviously, their intent was to trick the R+6 into overreaction, possibly even force them to divert resources necessary in the fight against ISIS. The response they got through the strike on Abu Firas, symbolic as it may be, will send a powerful signal to anybody wishing to interfere with the current negotiation logic. Therefore, even if hostilities flare up around Idlib, the most likely COA is that they will not interefere with the main offensive against the "Islamic State".
With Qaryatayn now also firmly in the hands of the SAA, this will open the way to an offensive towards Sukhna, ISIS’ first defensive line now on the way to Deir-ez-Zor, possibly in combination with YPG and SDF coming from the North, through Shahadi (only 25 miles North of Deir-ez-Zor). The logistics involved in such a ground operation are complex however, and a step-by-step approach is the most likely scenario in this case. Getting to Deir-ez-Zor might be worth it though, as this would not only achieve another highly symbolic victory (lifting yet another epic siege), but would seriously disrupt one of the core areas of ISIS, namely the Euphrates valley, thereby cutting off their entire logistics trail.
The other tactical options for the R+6 are mainly twofold: either clear the East of Homs province, which is still pretty much in ISIS hands, as a way to securing the “Khanasser road” into Aleppo, or pushing from Ithriyah (North-East of Salamiyah, on that exact same Khanasser road) right into Tabqa through the oilfields that ISIS needs so direly now. Both actions could also be combined, depending on progress made on either axis of advance.
A Mirror Image of the 2007 Surge
Strategically, the idea at work here is at the exact opposite of what the US Surge had to achieve in 2007. Back then, one of the main objectives was to get AQI (or the ISI) out of its strongholds in Baghdad and the cities it controlled in Anbar. That was the rationale of the battle for the Baghdad belts, which turned out to be more of an ethnic cleansing operation subcontracted to local "Special Police Commandos" and various Shia militias, and the systematic (physical) suppression of Jihadi groups in a number of towns and cities in Anbar province. As a sidenote, it should be remembered that the most successful aspects of this Surge were cinetic military action performed by groups such as "Task Force 145", and not the COIN campaign based on winning over "hearts and minds" that was sold to the American public.
This is a lesson that needs to be taken into consideration in today's fight. Of course, the overall situation and circumstances are quite different, and so are their contingencies. In the absence of massive US manpower, taking back IS controlled cities takes a lot more effort and coordination. The already announced offensive on Mosul, probably some kind of counter-PR to the actual SAA offensive on Palmyra, will take months before it even reaches the outskirts of the Northern Iraqi city. As for Raqqa, it will probably be the first capital IS will lose, but here too, coordination between various groups from various coalitions will take some effort.
Thus, the most promising strategy for pushing back IS on the ground is to isolate its core areas by cutting off LOCs, thereby disrupting territorial continuity, and then organising some "quadrillage" in the areas controlled by the SAA (or the ISF for that matter). This MO seems to be working much more efficiently with the SAA, or the Kurdish YPG militias, than with the ISF, but the aim is identical: isolating the different power centres of ISIS from each other (Raqqa, Mosul, Deir-ez-Zor, etc.), grinding down their territory, and making the grip tighter and tighter around Raqqa and Mosul, until they're ripe for the final onslaught.