Advantage Assad After Five Years of War in Syria

SYRIA-CONFLICT

Syrian government soldiers celebrate after taking control of the village of Ratian, north of the embattled city of Aleppo.

Photographer: George Ourfalian/AFP via Getty Images
  • Turks, Saudis have few options to aid embattled rebel allies
  • War heads to shootout with Islamic State as `moderates' wilt

After five years of war and a quarter-million dead, President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies now have the upper hand in Syria, and they’re seeking to drive home a growing battlefield advantage rather than negotiate.

QuickTake Syria’s Civil War

In the past week, the United Nations has tried to get peace talks under way in Geneva, and European leaders met in London to seek ways to halt a refugee influx that’s creating political havoc across the continent. But those events looked like sideshows to the action unfolding in northern Syria, where Assad’s forces -- backed by pro-Iranian fighters and Russian planes -- are moving closer to winning the most decisive victory of the war by recapturing Aleppo.

Gains by Assad and his allies in the past month have squeezed overland supply lines to Turkey that may represent the last bulwark against defeat for the rebels in northern Syria. Tens of thousands of refugees have already fled toward Turkey, which is hosting German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday to discuss the crisis. To the west, another opposition stronghold in Idlib is also under threat from government forces.

Russian air power is “allowing Assad forces to advance against previously formidable foes,” said Jennifer Cafarella, Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for Study of War. “The regime has achieved a decisive advantage in Aleppo.”

That doesn’t mean the war is over, or even likely to end anytime soon. Syria has already witnessed sieges that lasted years. Also, Islamic State still holds swaths of eastern Syria, and may gain new recruits from rebels losing ground further west. But the conflict is narrowing toward a contest between Assad and the jihadists: opposition groups labeled as more moderate, backed by Western powers and their Middle Eastern allies, face being squeezed out.

‘Not the End’

“This is not the end of the war, but could be the beginning of the end, with Assad, Russia, Hezbollah and Iran as the biggest winners,” said Patrick Megahan, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a research group in Washington. “Many of the more radical groups will likely continue to fight even if the opposition loses much of its territory.”

Assad, who was on the verge of defeat in mid-2015 before Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped in with military support, has wrested back the initiative. His army last week broke a three-year siege of two villages north of Aleppo. The city is almost encircled, apart from a narrow stretch of contested territory, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Russian jets, meanwhile, are pounding Idlib, where the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front is the strongest opposition group, the SOHR says.

“We’re not only shocked, but also outraged, at what’s happened in terms of human suffering in the past few days for tens of thousands of people through bomb attacks, including attacks above all from Russia,” Merkel told reporters in Ankara after meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday.

The UN on Wednesday suspended peace talks in Geneva, only two days after they started, as Assad’s offensive sparked opposition threats to walk out. The talks were originally viewed as preparations for a post-Assad Syria, but changing fortunes on the battlefield are easing Western pressure for the leader to leave office.

“It’s difficult to hold peace talks under such circumstances, so this situation needs to end soon,” Merkel said.

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said on Saturday that there would be no cease-fire until government forces re-establish control over the country’s borders with Turkey and Jordan, the state-run news service SANA reported.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month called for a “unity” government in Syria, which Assad aides indicate would mean a limited role for some critics. In a recent meeting with opposition leader Riad Hijab, Kerry was reported in Arabic-language media as saying that the Syrian president could seek re-election. The top U.S. diplomat remains highly critical of Russia and Assad in public, saying on Friday that their bombing of civilians breaches UN resolutions and “has to stop.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. has urged allies that support armed opposition groups, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to reduce weapons shipments as a way to pressure insurgents into peace talks, the Washington Post reported on Friday. It cited rebel commanders who said that’s left them vulnerable to the Russian-backed offensive.

Bogged Down

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, in an interview last week, advocated the opposite policy: more arms for the rebels to level the playing field. The Saudis also signaled they’re ready to send troops to Syria as part of a coalition. But with the kingdom’s forces bogged down in Yemen, that’s unlikely to happen, Cafarella said.

The other source of hope for the rebels is Turkey, whose army has deployed more forces at the border with Syria. Russia said last week it suspected the Turks of preparing for a cross-border intervention. But most analysts said the build-up is probably for defensive purposes.

“As a practical matter, Turkey cannot invade Syria,” said Christopher Harmer, a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot and analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “Unless the U.S. is leading the invasion with support from NATO, a Turkish invasion of Syria would be political and economic suicide.”

With little hope of battlefield reinforcements for the rebels, and the Geneva process on ice, the key question may be how Russia chooses to play its hand, militarily and diplomatically.

The risk of the Russian strategy is that by eliminating all armed opposition to Assad except Islamic State, there won’t be anyone left to strike a peace agreement with, said Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Trend Studies in Moscow.

‘Increase Resistance’

“If they just crush them all one after another, it will only increase resistance,” he said. The Russian plan has a better chance of working if “political steps are taken alongside the military operation.”

Leonid Reshetnikov, a retired Foreign Intelligence Service general who now heads a Kremlin advisory group, said Russia’s main goal for now is to cut off the northwestern rebels from their base of support in Turkey.

“We will continue this operation methodically until we close the border,” he said. “There’s a chance that the more populated areas will be liberated in the next few months and that by June we’ll get to Raqqa,” the capital of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

By then, the Syrian war may look more like the conflict that Assad and the Russians have sought to portray it as since the start -- a straight fight between the government and Islamic extremists. That would be a political victory for Assad and Putin.

“The Russian strategy, it seems, will be to take Aleppo and then go back to the negotiating table, where he can then say that he controls every major population center in Syria,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “This will allow him to present himself as a vanguard against the Islamic State in the eastern desert and more importantly, Jabhat al Nusra in Idlib.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE