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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

The Syrian regime has made many gains this year, but it is too early to tell whether it's game over

Much of the fighting is paused throughout the country. The regime and its allies seem to have the upper hand on the political front too, writes Hassan Hassan

Vladimir Putin, right, and Bashar Al Assad watch a military parade in Syria, on Monday. Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Vladimir Putin, right, and Bashar Al Assad watch a military parade in Syria, on Monday. Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Throughout the conflict in Syria, multiple foreign interventions have come to the rescue of the regime. As the situation in Syria appears to be heading to a resolution in favour of Bashar Al Assad, it is worth recalling the history of how the regime was lifted up by these interventions, and where the situation in the country stands today.

The first major support the regime received was from Iran, which provided critical logistical and technical support. From 2011 to 2014, the Syrian regime suffered from manpower and technical shortages as the army became involved in battles on multiple fronts across the country.

The army, though, remained largely intact despite multi-pronged pressure. Even though pressure continued, the regime learned how to maintain an existential balance over events on the ground. Then, in 2014, the regime faced a new major test represented in the sweeping rise of ISIL, first through the group’s takeover of Raqqa, and then its expansion throughout northern, eastern and central Syria.

The United States, with a coalition of countries, then entered a war against ISIL. The US-led campaign against the jihadi group rejected the notion of working with the regime, but it did practically lift half of the burden of fighting against a major force in the country. Damascus could continue to focus most of its effort, where it could, against the other forces threatening the regime. It did not need to dislodge ISIL from large swaths the group controlled over the past three years; the US had to do so.

A year after the ISIL threat emerged, Damascus still needed the intervention of another country to face another threat, namely a coalition of jihadi and Islamist forces that began to advance deep into the regime’s heartlands in central and western Syria. Jaish Al Fateh, backed by Turkey and Qatar, expelled the regime from another province, Idlib, and advanced further into Hama, Homs and Latakia. The rebel coalition essentially forced Russia to intervene in Syria in September 2015.

Today, both the US and Russia have signalled that their missions in Syria have achieved their goals of stemming the threat of ISIL in the country. Alongside the success of the two separate campaigns, numerous other factors seem to place the Syrian regime in a very comfortable position throughout the country. As the situation stands today, the regime no longer faces the kinds of threats it faced during critical moments over the past six years.

One of the most important of these factors is how far Russia has succeeded in drawing the political and military Syrian map. Since its intervention in 2015, Russia has achieved three key breakthroughs for the regime. The first one was made in early 2016, when it became clear that the regime had been secured, after initial scepticism in Washington about the extent to which Moscow could shield its ally in Syria. Mr Al Assad had won the strategic war, with indications that even the rebels’ most committed backers began to shift away from their original goal of toppling the regime.

The second breakthrough was the Turkish about-face in the summer of last year, when it intervened in Syria to create a zone to undercut the Kurdish expansion in northern Syria. This meant that Ankara de-prioritised its campaign against Damascus in favour of an alliance with Russia, as tension with the US came to a head over support of the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia regarded by Turkey as a terrorist organisation. The new dynamics in the north, directly or indirectly, led the regime to recapture eastern Aleppo and secured itself in much of the north.

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By then, the opposition began to lose on multiple fronts. Not only did the opposition lose its backers’ unbridled military support, its strong backer in Turkey began to play another game that often helped the other side with its plans to gradually erode the threat against the regime. This effort, which Turkey supported, involved ceasefires that the regime continued to violate. Turkey became the co-pilot for Russia in the driver’s seat, as the US continued to focus on ISIL undisturbed.

Additionally, the opposition also began to lose the internal war. Jihadis in the north, specifically what is now known as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, gradually dominated the scene in central and northwestern Syria, at the expense of other forces, including former allies such as Ahrar Al Sham.

The third breakthrough achieved by Russia is its ability to redefine the Geneva process, the peace process that western powers insist is the only platform for future political settlement in Syria. The problem, though, is that Russia’s efforts, with Turkey and Iran through the Astana process, have already changed the nature of the conversation about the country’s future, even though western powers continue to be in denial.

Russia has worked with Turkey and Iran to redraw the map in northern and southern Syria and to redefine the terms that nations involved in the conflict use to discuss change in the country. The Russia-led process in Astana, as well as the recent one in the Russian city of Sochi, is already changing the configuration of the opposition, the meaning of a political transition and the conversations around elections and constitutions.

This process, the “Astana-isation of Geneva”, is made possible because of the ambiguity of the language endorsed in the UN Security Council’s resolution, agreed in December 2015, and the American and European inaction on this front, amid an energetic and involved Russia.

The genius of Russia in this regard is to engage in the very process the West insists on to hijack it in favour of its ally in Damascus. What seemed to be a Russian concession for a political transition at the UN Security Council this time two years ago now plays in Russia’s favour, thanks to its success in redefining what the terms mean and how the reality on the ground looks.

It is too early to tell whether this is game over in Syria. The gains for the regime over the past year are the most significant since the start of the conflict. Much of the fighting is paused throughout the country. The regime and its allies seem to have the upper hand on the political front too.

At the same time, the regime still has profound economic and military limitations. Much of the country is still out of its control, mostly under the influence of countries like Turkey and the US, and future scenarios will depend almost entirely on the choices made by the two countries, not those of the regime and its allies.

In the meantime, these arrangements do not appear to be durable. An unravelling of the current situation in the coming years is still a serious possibility, one that could present the regime and those involved in the conflict with a new round of challenges.