Is Syria on the way to becoming a ‘frozen conflict’?

Jerusalem Post, 25/9

The latest moves on the regime side in the Syrian war suggest an effort by the regime’s allies including Russia to ‘freeze’ the conflict, rather than to continue it to victory.  This is because victory in the form originally conceived – of the reconquest of the entirety of the country by the Assads – is clearly no longer achievable.  To ‘freeze’ a conflict in this sense does not imply that the conflict will become inert or inactive, but only that it will continue to smolder on without resolution.

The newest statements by leaders and mouthpieces of the various elements supporting the dictator, meanwhile, offer clues as to how the ongoing conflict is to be presented by Assad’s allies – as a fight against ‘terrorism,’ as exemplified, they claim, by both the Islamic State and its rivals, Jabhat al-Nusra.

In terms of the situation on the ground, the arrival of Russian personnel and equipment to Latakia Province is intended to bolster the regime enclave in the western coastal area.  There are no indications, however, of a Russian strategy to take part in a ground campaign to claw back the large swathe of northern Syria lost to the rebels and IS.  Rather, the deployment suggests a limited ground component, with a greater focus on air capacity.

Images first published in an article by this author and Mark Galeotti in Janes’ Intelligence Review offered evidence of infrastructural improvements and ferrying of materiel by Russia to the Basel al-Assad International Airport in Latakia.  Russia is flying Pchela 1t unmanned aircraft from this site, and looks set to begin flights of fixed wing aircraft from there in the near future.  These air operations look set to back the beleaguered government forces, assisting them in their fight against the rebels and relieving pressure on Assad’s own overstretched air force.

Further south, the Beirut Daily Star reported this week that Hizballah is to end offensive operations in Syria, following the indecisive conclusion of the Qalamoun offensive, launched in July.  The purpose of this offensive was to clear the Sunni Islamist  rebels from the area north west of Damascus and just east of the Syria-Lebanon border.  The going was slower than expected, and Hizballah losses were high. The final stage of the offensive was the re-taking of the town of Zabadani.

However, it now looks as though Zabadani will be secured for the regime not through military conquest, but by a quid pro quo with the rebels.

Reuters reported this week on negotiations between representatives of the rebels via third parties with Iranian and Hizballah officials. The agreement concluded would allow for safe passage for remaining rebel fighters from the center of Zabadani. In return, the rebels would allow  the departure of remaining civilians from the Shia villages of al-Foua and Kefraya. These represent the last areas of government control in Idleb Province in the north west of the country.

Announced on Sunday, the ceasefire that accompanied the negotiations has so far held.  Having secured its objectives, albeit at a heavy cost and partly by negotiation, Hizballah now looks set to seek to hold these areas, as part of a larger effort on the part of the regime and its allies to consolidate control over the roughly 20% of Syria that remains to Assad.

The propagandists and spokespeople of the pro-Iranian regional bloc have already begun to frame this policy  as a  campaign against ‘terror.’ No doubt the increased use of air assets will be compared to the coalition air campaign against the Islamic State.  The latter in turn is likely to find itself also a target of increased regime attention, to make this comparison plausible.  But the real fight will be to defend the existing regime enclave against the rebels.

Ibrahim al-Amin, editor of the pro-Iran and pro-Hizballah al-Akhbar newspaper in Lebanon,  announced the arrival of a new bloc that he called the ‘4 + 1’ alliance against terror.  The ‘4’ are Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria.  The additional ‘1’ is Hizballah.  According to al-Amin, this new alliance constitutes a ‘strategic shift’ in the Syrian situation, and is set to include the ‘sending of Russian and Iranian special forces to the areas controlled by President Bashar Assad.’

Amin, whose writing has a slightly overheated style which recalls the Arab nationalist propaganda of earlier decades, also predicts a major  ground role for Russian forces on the Syrian battlefield. The Russians, he asserts, will  ‘“play a prominent role on the ground and will participate in combat on the battlefield with their advanced weaponry by leading operations and taking part in artillery shelling, air raids and otherwise, alongside the Syrian army and Hezbollah.”

A rival, and less sanguine interpretation of Russia’s activity in Syria was authored by  Abd al Rahman al-Rashed, in the pro-Saudi Sharq al Awsat newspaper (of which al-Rashid is a former editor).

Al-Rashed speculated that the Russian build up in Latakia might presage a decision by the Assad regime to pull out of Damascus, and finally establish the long discussed Alawi enclave in the western coastal area.  He referred to the Russian and Iranian doubling down on support for Assad as a ‘lost game.’

But if Ibrahim al-Amin errs in depicting the ‘4 +1’ initiative as a matter of grand historic import, al-Rashed is perhaps excessive in tentatively suggesting that a regime retreat from the capital may be imminent, and in depicting Assad’s cause as hopeless.

The most beleaguered area for the regime in recent months has been the western coastal area itself, rather than Damascus.  As of now, the most immediate task facing Russia, Iran and the other allies of the regime is to solidify the regime’s hold precisely on the western coast.  Damascus, by contrast, is witnessing clashes between rebels and regime forces, but appears somewhat more solidly in the regime’s hands.

In recent weeks, the most notable dynamic in the Syrian war has been the absence of major changes in possession of ground, along with a sharp uptick in regime air activity and shelling.  This, combined with the local ceasefire in Zabadani and the Idleb front, suggests that the immediate goal of Assad’s allies is the preservation of the regime enclave as currently constituted, rather than the grander ‘war on terror’ painted by regime and pro-Hizballah propaganda or the more desperate retreat depicted by al-Rashed.

If this goal is achieved, might this in turn lead to Syria becoming another of the ‘frozen conflicts’ which are the speciality of Russian strategy as presently constituted?  Given the balance of forces on the ground and the diplomatic deadlock, this possibility should by no means be ruled out.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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