Ready for the Storm

Jerusalem Post, 15/4

War in Syria – and Israeli efforts to ensure it does not spread to the Golan, West Bank – set to continue

The fragile cease-fire declared in Syria on February 27 between regime and rebel forces is in the process of crumbling. Assad’s forces have launched an offensive across southern Aleppo province. Fighting is also taking place in Homs and northwest Hama provinces and east of Damascus. There are reports of regime forces massing for an assault on rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo city.

The cease-fire, in any case, applied to only one of the many conflicts taking place in Syria. It did not extend to the war between Islamic State and the Western-supported, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. It did not include the fight between Islamic State and other rebel and Sunni Islamist groups. Nor did it apply to the intermittent fighting between the Kurdish YPG and the rebels, or the Kurds and the regime.

From Israel’s point of view, the resumption of hostilities in Syria will come as no surprise. Nor will it change the basic Israeli calculus regarding events in Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week for the first time acknowledged openly that Israel has engaged in air action to interdict the transfer of sophisticated weapons systems from Syrian soil to Hezbollah in Lebanon. “We act when we need to act, including here, across the border, with dozens of strikes meant to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining game-changing weaponry,” Netanyahu said during a visit to military units on the Golan Heights.

Action of this kind has been widely reported in global media. The prime minister’s confirmation will thus surprise few Syria watchers in terms of its content. But Netanyahu’s decision to openly admit this action nevertheless represents a departure from the usual Israeli practice with regard to Syria.

Israeli determination to prevent Iranian and regime arms transfers to Hezbollah is an element of the broader Israeli view according to which the Iran-led regional bloc constitutes the key strategic threat to the Jewish state.

This does not mean that Israel is indifferent to the potential threat represented by the flourishing of Sunni jihadi forces, including Islamic State, close to the border. But because of the higher level of organization and far more sophisticated capabilities of the Iran-supported elements, preventing their advance is considered paramount.

This view also informs Israel’s other area of vital concern regarding Syria – namely, the question of which forces are located immediately east of Quneitra crossing, facing the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights; and no less importantly, who controls the area of Deraa province facing Jordan.

At present, the map of clashing forces in this area is complex.

In terms of who controls what, the non-Islamic State rebels control the greater part of the area immediately adjoining the Israeli-controlled Golan. But both the regime and Islamic State are also present in the area. Regime forces control a small enclave at the northern edge of the borderline around the town of Beit Jinn. Further south, regime-supporting forces control the Druse village of Khader, just east of Quneitra.

An Islamic State franchise, the Shuhada al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs’) Brigade, meanwhile, holds an area at the southern edge of the borderline, from the town of Tasil down to the Jordanian border.

Further east, the regime late last year succeeded in cutting and holding a line between rebel forces in Deraa province, and this division of forces remains.

Against the background of the cease-fire between the rebels and the regime, fighting between Islamic State and the rebels is taking place east of the border with Israel. Shuhada al-Yarmouk is being supported by an additional jihadi militia, Harakat al-Muthanna, which has yet to formally align itself with Islamic State.

On the rebel side, both Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, powerful jihadi militias, are present. Fighting Islamic State alongside them are the Western- and Jordanian-supported forces of the Southern Front.

So there are three elements engaged in the war in southern Syria: regime/Iran associated forces, Islamic State-associated groups, and rebel groups of both Islamist and non-Islamist stripes.

In this three-way contest, Israel has no friends. But it prefers to ensure that the rebels remain dominant in the areas of concern.
What is the nature of the Iranian threat here?

First and most obviously, Israeli officials consider that Iran and its allies wish to establish a second platform, in addition to the Israel-Lebanon border, from which strikes could be launched against Israeli communities.

But an additional consideration exists. The Iranians want to foment renewed insurgency in the West Bank against Israel. Achieving a capacity to transfer weapons to that area via Jordan forms an essential element of that strategy. In turn, controlling the area adjoining the Syrian-Jordanian border in Deraa province is crucial for the realization of this plan.

So it is a joint Israeli-Jordanian interest to ensure that this does not take place. Since neither country wishes to insert ground forces in large numbers into Syria, the buffer needs to come from carefully selected and supported rebel groups. Of course, such groups play the additional role of blocking or reducing Islamic State access to the border.

This reflects the interconnectedness of events in the region, but also the overriding Israeli interest, of which all these elements form a part. Namely, the determination to keep the military, political and ideological storms that are consuming all before them in the surrounding area from spreading into Israel itself.

Since the collapse of the cease-fire indicates that these storms appear nowhere close to exhaustion, the efforts to ensure their containment through both acknowledged and unacknowledged means are likely to continue.

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Towards a coherent western policy on the Syrian war

Key points


  • Syria today is divided into areas of control. The Russian intervention means that the Assad regime can no longer be defeated militarily, except by a direct western military intervention against Assad which clearly will not happen.


  • Western policy on Syria has been characterized by hesitation and by an inability to identify deserving partners. This needs to change. As of now, with Syria de facto divided, the crucial point is to grasp the possibilities inherent in this reality.


  • The west is currently allied with the Syrian Democratic Forces. This force should be assisted to destroy the Islamic State in the months ahead.  Once IS is vanquished, Syria will effectively be divided into an SDF held east, regime controlled west, and areas held by the Sunni Arab Islamist military groups.


  • The subsequent goal should be the establishment of a federal, confederal or partitioned Syria. i









Introduction: Unending war



The five year, continuing civil war in Syria is the greatest crisis to have hit the Levant since World War 2.  According to recent figures released by the Damascus-based Syrian Center for Policy Research, up to 470,000 people have died in the war.  Fully 11.5 % of the population have been killed or injured.  45% of the population have left their homes as a result of the conflict. Of these, over 4 million have left Syria, while 6.36 million people live inside the country as internally displaced persons.  Life expectancy has dropped from 70.5 years in 2010 to an estimated 55.4 years in 2015. [i]


The war, meanwhile, currently shows no sign of conclusion.  A ceasefire beginning on February 27th has partially held in some areas of the country, but in much of Syria the fighting is continuing and the underlying causes of the war remain far from resolution.


There is no longer a single civil war taking place in Syria.  Rather, the country has fragmented, and the original conflict between the Assad regime and a mainly Sunni Arab rebellion against it has metastasized into a confusing series of conflicts between the various fragments.  Thus, in Syria today, in addition to the war between Assad and the rebels, there is also a separate conflict between the Islamic State and the western-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (the main component of which is the Kurdish YPG).  In addition, one may discern clashes between the YPG and the Sunni rebels, the regime and IS, the YPG and the regime, and the Turkish armed forces against the YPG.


Prior to the Russian intervention commencing on September 30th, the direction of the war appeared to be going badly for the Assad regime.  The rebels were on the verge of breaking into the regime heartland in Latakia Province.  The Russian intervention was in the first instance intended to prevent this eventuality.  It succeeded in this regard.  As of now, it appears that none of the sides can be defeated by the other.  Assad, with Russian guarantees, can no longer be destroyed militarily.  But the rooted and popular rebellion is also unlikely to be defeated conclusively by the stretched forces of the regime and its allies.  IS, meanwhile, is slowly losing ground but appears not currently close to final defeat.


This paper will observe the latest events in the war, trace the direction of western policy toward it and conclude with some suggestions for a more coherent western approach toward the Syrian war.









Changing tide, multiple conflicts, de facto fragmentation



In early 2015, the tide on the battlefront appeared to be turning decisively against the Assad regime.


The main disadvantage facing the regime from the outset was a severe limitation of manpower.  This in turn derived from the sectarian nature of the conflict, and the regime’s narrow base of support.  Much cogent analysis of the Syrian war predicted that if the mainly Sunni Arab insurgency could avoid destruction, and if it could wholly or partly solve its chronic problems of disunity and fractiousness, then its greater base of support must inevitably, eventually, deliver it victory.


On March 24th, 2015, in north west Syria, a number of powerful Sunni Islamist rebel groups came together to form a new alliance called the Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest).  The alliance included some of the most powerful factions in the area, including Jabhat al-Nusra, the official franchise of al-Qaeda in Syria and Ahrar al-Sham, largest and most influential of the Salafi militias in north west Syria.  [ii]


This alliance captured Idleb City on March 28th, and went on to conquer most of Idleb Province in subsequent weeks.


At this point, the Assad regime faced a potential existential threat.  Its own strategy to deal with its limited manpower since 2012 had been to cede non-essential areas of the country’s north to the rebellion.  But now, the rebellion stood at the edge of the Sahel al-Ghab, a plain leading into the regime held Latakia province.  Latakia is the heartland of Syria’s Alawite sect, to which the Assad family belongs.  It also holds access to Syria’s Mediterranean coast, and contains the Russian naval facilities at Tartus and Latakia city.  [iii]


Loss of Latakia would have made inevitable the final defeat of the regime.  The possibility of this triggered the Russian direct intervention starting on September 30th, 2015.  This intervention at one stroke changed the course of the war.  Russian air power working with regime, IRGC, Hizballah and other elements has now turned the tide once more.  The rebels are in retreat in Aleppo province and the prospect of a complete cutting off of rebel controlled eastern Aleppo city is very real.

But while the immediate threat to the Assad regime has been neutralized, a general rout of the Sunni Arab rebellion does not appear currently imminent.  President Bashar Assad in a recent interview declared his goal to be the complete re-conquest of currently divided Syria.  But even he acknowledged that this was bound to be a long process.  Russia, it now seems clear,  is not committed to this process. Indeed, a partial Russian ‘withdrawal ‘ of forces has taken place. The Russian intervention was less a strategic master stroke than a fire-extinguishing exercise intended to avert an imminent threat to the regime’s existence.  Russian involvement in the recent reconquest of Palmyra from IS indicates that despite the announcement of withdrawal, Moscow’s forces appear set to remain engaged in Syria.  But the announcement suggests that a full scale Russian supported attempt to reconquer the country does not appear likely.


The intervention of Russian power has saved the regime.  But it has not removed many of the core issues that brought the Assad regime to the point where it required saving.  Lack of manpower remains a chronic problem. The ground force accompanying the Russians consists largely of non-Syrian forces.  These include Iraqi Shia militias such as the Badr Brigade, the Afghan Shia Fatemiyun, Lebanese Hizballah, and personnel from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and from Russian special forces. [iv] Unless the Iranians and their allies are interested in the permanent occupation of Sunni Arab parts of Syria, it is difficult to see how the regime could avoid the re-igniting of the rebellion following the reconquest of rebel held areas.  The reportedly heavy casualties suffered by the Iranians in the recent battles in northern Aleppo Province may be a further disincentive toward an attempt to undertake further far-reaching offensives on behalf of Assad.


So whatever its broader ambitions, it is likely that for the immediate future, the Assad regime will be engaged in consolidating its gains at the eastern edges of its enclave, rather than embarking on an ambitious offensive to reunite the country under its rule.


The Russian intervention has, nevertheless, effectively ended any possibility of the military destruction of the Assad regime.   This could now only be achieved with the deployment of air power sufficient to neutralize or defeat that of the Russians.  Air power of this capacity is possessed only by western air forces, whose governments have no intention of risking military confrontation with the Russians over Syria.  Absent this, regime survival in one form or another, on one part of Syria or another, is now assured.


As a result, as of now, Syria remains divided into four fragments, which are likely to survive for the immediate future. These are:


  1. The regime controlled area, stretching from the capital city of Damascus to the western coastal area. This area contains also the main cities of western Syria – Homs and Hama, and the western part of Aleppo city, and the M5 highway linking the capital with Homs and the cities beyond it.


  1. The Islamic State area, taking in the greater part of Raqqa and Deir al-Zour provinces and parts of Homs, Hasakeh and Aleppo provinces.


III. The dis-connected areas in Aleppo, Idleb, Deraa, Damascus, Homs, Hama, Suwayda  and Quneitra provinces controlled by various factions of the Sunni Arab rebels,


  1. The two Kurdish cantons on the Syrian-Turkish border, the largest stretching from the Syrian-Iraqi border to outside the town of Jarabulus and south into Hasakeh and Raqqa provinces, and an additional smaller canton further west around the town of Afrin.


A number of different conflicts are taking place on the soil of Syria.   In addition to the ‘original’ conflict between the Assad regime and the Sunni Arab rebels, one may discern the separate war between the western-supported Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurdish YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units) against the Islamic State.  In addition, the regime is clashing with IS in Aleppo province and in the Palmyra area, the YPG is fighting elements among the rebels in Aleppo, and there is also periodic tension between the regime and the Kurds in the Qamishli and Hasakeh areas in Syria’s north east.




Western policy on Syria: rudderless and confused


The western response on Syria has throughout been characterized by hesitancy and inconsistency.  This has had the effect of facilitating the bolder interventions of anti-western powers, in this case Iran and Russia,  who rapidly became convinced that there would be little price to pay for supporting their clients in Syria.


The initial uprising against Assad had been under way for nearly half a year when President Barack Obama, in a statement issued jointly with British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally called on Assad to resign.  Assad, according to the statement, was required to ‘face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people.’  [v]


This statement, it is worth remembering, came at a time when it was generally accepted that Assad’s downfall was inevitable and was only a matter of time.  Thus, it was accompanied by only small and token  practical steps, including sanctions on some government officials and on Syria’s military and security establishments.


Neither statements by western leaders nor limited sanctions had any major effect.  From the start, the loyalty of Assad’s allies and their determination to ensure his survival was apparent, enabling the dictator to stand firm.  In stark contrast to the situation in western supported authoritarian countries including Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen,  Assad found that his allies saw the uprising in terms of a test of their own usefulness as patrons.   Both Russia and Iran appeared determined to demonstrate that while the west had rapidly abandoned clients of long standing such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt when popular agitation against them began, Moscow and Teheran’s  patronage would ensure the survival of their own clients.  In Syria this was reflected in Iranian assistance in line with the dictator’s needs of the moment from the very outbreak of the uprising.


In the initial stages, when the uprising was largely peaceful and unarmed, the Iranians assisted with the know how they had accumulated in dealing successfully with civilian protestors.  Later, of course, when the uprising took on a military dimension, Iranian assistance, manpower and mobilization of proxies would prove central to the dictator’s survival.  Russian support was vital in preventing the possibility of any concerted action against the regime via the UN Security Council.  Russian provision of weapons also constituted a vital lifeline for the regime.



It has since become apparent that a discussion behind the scenes was taking place in the US government in the course of 2012 regarding the advisability or otherwise of a major increase in US support for the rebels.


In this regard, a number of things should be noted: the armed rebellion from the outset emerged in Sunni Arab parts of Syria, and was dominated by members of that element of the population, which is usually estimated at constituting around 60% of the total Syrian population.  There were overtly Islamist elements present in it from the start.  I visited Idleb Province in February 2012 and witnessed the presence of Sunni Islamists, including individuals with combat experience in Iraq, among the rebels.


Even at that time, the jihadis, who were described to me by a Free Army officer at that time as possessing superior skills because of their experience in insurgency in Iraq, were a presence on the ground.


Nevertheless, the main Sunni Islamist militias which would by 2014 dominate the Sunni Arab rebellion had not yet been established at that time.  Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS were not yet organized, much less dominant presences in the areas vacated by the regime in the course of 2012.  Instead, recently defected officers and fighters from Assad’s army along with local volunteers constituted the most significant element.  I travelled with these forces in Idleb province at that time and had the opportunity to interview a number of fighters and commanders.  The Sunni Islamists did not dominate at that time. But it should also be noted that Idleb and Aleppo provinces are areas in which Sunni Islamist ideology had a considerable hold even prior to 2011.


A strong lobby within the US government wanted to support a program for increased provision of arms for the rebels at that time.  Among this ‘arms for rebels’ group were then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then CIA head David Petraeus,  and former US ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford.  This group advocated a large scale increase in the quantity and nature of support to the nascent armed rebellion in Syria.  [vi]


This position was opposed by President Barack Obama and senior members of his security staff.  The president, who famously later described the rebels as ‘former doctors, farmers and pharmacists’ was clearly determined to avoid a situation in which the US was dragged into a large scale commitment in Syria. [vii] This was in line with his more general policy of disengagement from active involvement in the conflicts of the Middle East.


In turn, the president’s position, though strongly opposed by senior officials within his government, was in tune with US public opinion at the time.  Following two unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the public had no enthusiasm for involvement, or even for major support to one of the combatant sides, in a third.


It is of course impossible to say what the outcome would have been had the US begun to offer large scale material support and training to the Syrian armed rebellion in 2012.  Pro-rebel advocates naturally assert that the result would have been a swift end to the war and the avoidance of the terrible loss of life that subsequently took place in Syria.  However, there are various alternative scenarios whereby the mainly Sunni rebellion, had it defeated the regime, might have exacted a terrible revenge against the regime-supporting and non-Sunni parts of the population.  Such debates are by their very nature sterile.  In any case, this support did not take place. And by mid-2013, the emergence of large and powerful Sunni Islamist groups had changed the reality on the ground and therefore the possible options and the terms of debate.


In one area, however, the critics of the Obama Administration’s approach on Syria are surely on firmer ground.  In August, 2012, the president issued a clear red line to the Assad regime, on the issue of chemical weapons.  ““We have been very clear to the Assad regime,” the president said, ‘but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation. .. We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.” [viii]


This sounds like a clear declaration that the use of chemical weapons by Assad or any other ‘player’ in Syria would result in direct US action against that player.


In the course of 2013, a series of attacks using chemical weapons by the Assad regime against the rebellion took place. According to subsequent UN investigations, the regime used sarin gas against rebel controlled areas in Khan Al-Asal (19 March 2013) and Saraqib (29 April 2013) in Syria’s north.  The largest attack, however, took place in , eastern Ghouta on August 21st, 2013, in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.  In this attack,   up to 1000 kg of sarin was dropped, resulting in the deaths of over 1000 people, mainly women and children.  [ix]


Assad’s actions were clearly in defiance of the red line issued by the US. The subsequent expectation was that the US would take direct action, probably involving air power, to ‘punish’ the regime and seek to restore the ban on use of chemical and biological weapons as an instrument of war.


In the event, a ‘compromise’ was reached according to which Syria would agree to sign the chemical weapons convention and accept the removal of its chemical weapons stockpiles by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).  This was largely (though not entirely) achieved.  [x]


But the lasting effect of the failure of the US to enforce its ‘red line’ was without doubt the growing confidence on the part of the regime and its backers that the will of the US could be ignored with impunity, since the determination of the US to stay out of the war in Syria evidently trumped other considerations concerning deterrence and the maintenance of important international norms.


There are those who have sought to draw links between the US decision regarding non-enforcement of the red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons and broader subsequent events, including the Russian decision to invade and annex Crimea in 2014.   Such assessments are beyond the scope of this paper.  But certainly, it should be noted that the use of chemical weapons did not end in 2013.  Both the Assad regime and Islamic State have used chemical weapons subsequently, with no apparent penalty. This author was the first to publish the evidence of their use by the Islamic State in the Kobane area, using evidence gleaned during a reporting visit to that region in mid-2014.  [xi]


The Syrian war is the first time that chemical weapons have been systematically used in a conflict in the Middle East since Saddam Hussein’s employment of them against Iraqi Kurds during the ‘Anfal’ operations in 1988.


The zig-zagging on the issue of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime led to a significant decline in the standing of the US in the region.  The subsequent failure of the ‘Train and Equip’ program for Syrian rebels, which was intended to create a cohort of US-vetted, US-trained fighters to take on the Islamic State in north-east Syria did nothing to improve this standing.


IS emerged as a de facto sovereign entity in northern and eastern Syria in 2014. The organization proclaimed its holdings in Syria to constitute a new Islamic Caliphate in June 2014. [xii] It murdered  a number of western journalists and aid workers including two US citizens, James Foley and Steven Sotloff.


The murderous nature of ISIS, its capture of Syrian territory, its targeting of westerners , and the increasingly Islamist and jihadi nature of the rebellion led to a shifting of focus in 2014/5 away from debate about opposition to Assad and toward the need to challenge IS.


The US and western response to the IS threat in Syria took the form of the (now abandoned) train and equip program for vetted rebels in the north, assistance to rebels in the south to defend their areas from IS encroachment, and assistance to the Kurdish YPG organization in north east Syria, to enable it to both defend and conquer ground captured against IS.


Of these efforts, by far the most successful partnering so far in military terms has been that between US air power and the YPG, which commenced in October, 2014.  At that time, the Kurdish canton of Kobani was facing possible disaster.  US air intervention enabled the Kurds to turn the tide in the fight against IS.


The YPG alliance, however, had clear advantages for the US beyond the relative military effectiveness of the former’s fighters.


I have embedded with YPG fighters on a number of occasions in the Syrian war. The first of these was in early 2013, only a few months after the group’s foundation.  [xiii] The military effectiveness of this organization and its greater level of organization when compared to many of the rebel groupings were apparent from the outset.


However, there is a significant political element also which should not be missed. The YPG was a separate entity from the rebellion. The authorities in the autonomous Kurdish cantons regard themselves as following a ‘third line,’ affiliated neither with the regime nor with the rebels.  The advantage this afforded the west in partnering with these elements was that the likelihood of weapons or assistance provided to the YPG finding its way to anti-western jihadi elements was zero.  The relationship between the Kurdish secular nationalist fighters and the Sunni Arab jihadis was one of animosity.


This was in stark contrast to the situation pertaining vis a vis the rebellion, where the relations between jihadi and non-jihadi or less jihadi elements were and remain ambiguous in the extreme.  The domination of the rebellion by Sunni Islamism is the factor which has prevented effective western aid to it.  Attempts by the US to identify deserving rebel groups and arm them failed because of the vulnerability of the groups in question before the bigger and stronger Islamist organizations.


An example of this may be seen in the fate of the Hazm (Determination) group in northern Syria.  This organization was identified as pro-western and moderate and provided in mid 2014 with BGM-71 Tow anti-tank missiles by the United States, in a covert CIA mission.  The organization was challenged and destroyed by Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria) in October , 2014, which then inherited the weaponry in question.  Similarly, the larger US-supported Syrian Revolutionaries front, led by Jamal Ma’arouf, was destroyed by Nusra in the same period.


The Train and Equip program received a budget of $500 million from the US government, but only 100 fighters were trained. Of these, 54 entered Syria on July 12, 2015. Despite US air support, within 24 hours the force had been destroyed by Jabhat al-Nusra and its weapons captured.  A second group which entered Syria in September suffered a similar fate.  [xiv]


The difficulties experienced by the Train and Equip program derive from two elements: firstly, the US desire to focus on IS undoubtedly clashed with the determination of many rebels to focus their attention on the Assad regime. This may have served to reduce the numbers of recruits to the US supported training program.


However, a more fundamental difficulty derives from the largely Sunni Islamist nature of the rebellion. This meant that many applicants failed to get through the stringent vetting process applied to keep jihadis out.  [xv] But it also meant, as it turned out, that those who did get through the program either wished to cooperate with extreme jihadi elements in it, or were powerless before these same elements.  In either case, the end result was that the US was unable to keep assets it provided to its allies in the rebellion from falling into the hands of hostile Sunni jihadi elements.


In this regard, it is important to understand that while in the west IS is seen as a unique and uniquely dangerous foe, many among the Syrian rebels see it as a wayward, perhaps extreme derivative of the rebellion itself.  This latter view is a more accurate one.  The ideology of IS is Sunni salafi jihadi in nature. This is the same ideology as that of Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other powerful rebel groups.  In many contexts, these organizations have cooperated with IS.  The reluctance of many Sunni Arab fighters in northern Syria to prioritize the fight against IS derives not only from their order of priorities, but also from the fact that IS is seen by many as an element of the rebellion, not an enemy of it.


In southern Syria, the west pursued a more successful policy of sponsoring rebel groups.  Salafi jihadi Islamism has less appeal in this environment.  The Southern Front of Bashar al-Zoubi, supplied from Jordan, offers the most promising example of a non-jihadi rebel group able to survive and engage effectively against the Assad regime.  [xvi] In the south too, though,  Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and IS-affiliated units are present.







What should happen now?


It is clear that there are no ideal choices in Syria.  In considering a coherent policy response, a certain number of facts must be acknowledged.


Firstly, the Russian air intervention on the side of the regime means that Assad can no longer be defeated militarily, absent the intervention of an air force equal or superior to that of the Russians.  There is no prospect of this.  This means that in at least part of Syria, the Assad regime, with or without Assad himself, is set to survive.


Secondly, in northern Syria (though to a considerably lesser extent in southern Syria) the rebellion against Assad is dominated by Sunni Islamist organizations. Extreme salafi jihadi groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham play a central role.  Such organizations belong to the same ideological world as Islamic State, although they differ on matters of short term strategy.  Because of this commonality, the prospect of using the Sunni rebel groups as an instrument against IS are close to zero.  Indeed, in recent fighting in Aleppo province, an IS attack in the Khanaser area south east of Aleppo city was of great assistance to the rebels.  [xvii]


Nevertheless, it is also the case that even with the Russian intervention, it is unlikely that the rebellion will be completely destroyed.   Putin’s announcement of the withdrawal of Russian forces makes such an outcome still less likely.  [xviii] The essential problem of lack of sufficient manpower for holding re-conquered areas remains for the regime.


Thirdly,  the most successful western action militarily in the Syrian context to date has been the pairing of western air power with the Kurdish YPG.  This has liberated over 1000 square kilometers of Syrian territory from IS. The SDF (of which the YPG is the key element) is now located 30km north of the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Raqqa city.  Its latest victory against IS, the liberation of the town of Shaddadi, was achieved with a force consisting of 60% Kurds and 40% Arabs, according to a statement by special U.S. presidential envoy to the coalition against Islamic State, Brett Mcgurk.  [xix]It is perhaps worth mentioning that my last visit to Syria, in late December, brought me to the first SDF lines before Shaddadi.  I examined the possibility of the  upcoming assault on the town in a number of articles.  I also conducted extensive interviews with both Kurdish and Arab elements in this force.  These included meetings with the Syriac Military Union (a Christian force aligned with the SDF), with Jaysh al-Sanadid (a militia organized by the Shammar tribe) and the Shams al-Shamal group, which emerged from the non-jihadi rebel groups in northern Syria.  [xx]

My impression was of  a disciplined and well-organized force.  In many visits to Syria in the course of the war, I have ‘embedded’ with a variety of non-government forces, from the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo in the height if the fighting in August 2012 to the Kurdish YPG.  It is my contention that the SDF, and particularly the YPG core of it, represents the most disciplined and organized force that I have encountered.


The alliance with the Kurds has proven problematic because of Kurdish determination to unite the Kobani and Jazeera cantons with Afrin further west, and Turkish objection to this.  Nevertheless, east of the Euphrates, the SDF continues to advance, gradually cutting Raqqa city off from other holdings of IS.



Given all this, coherent western policy regarding Syria should be based on the following lines:


Syria is currently effectively partitioned.  Since the west does not wish to go to war with Russia to destroy the Assad regime, this fact must be acknowledged.


The only effective and reliable ground partner the west has in the fight against IS is the SDF.  The war against IS must therefore be prosecuted at a tempo sufficient to ensure the re conquest of IS-controlled areas by the SDF. This would be achieved with US air cover, but a minimal commitment of US forces on the ground.  This would ensure that a western-backed force controls this area.  It should be made clear to the regime and Russia that no attempt to push into this area will be tolerated.


Regime limitations, plus support from regional Sunni states are likely to prove sufficient to prevent the complete destruction of the mainly Islamist Sunni rebellion in both northern and southern Syria.  Assistance to the non-jihadi elements in south west Syria, should continue.


Political negotiations should be based on the formalization of the existing division of Syria.  Any other approach is bound to facilitate further conflict. The regime and the Sunni rebellion cannot defeat one another.  Arrangements for decentralization, the acknowledgement of the heterogenous nature of the population of the area and future federal or confederal arrangements offer the only prospect for de-escalating the conflict.


Such an approach contains at its root an acknowledgement that Syria as a unitary state based on centralized rule from Damascus has ceased to exist.  The country has separated largely along ethnic and sectarian lines.  Whether or not this was desirable, denying its reality is certainly counter-productive.  The root of coherent policy in both Syria and Iraq lies in understanding the fragmented reality of these countries. Once this is done, potential partners and allies may be identified from among the various ‘successor’ entities currently controlling territory in each of these areas.





Western policy toward the war in Syria has been characterized by hesitancy born from the determination not to become embroiled in a further Middle Eastern conflict.  It has also been characterized by an inability to identify and develop relations with reliable partners.


As of now, this has produced a reality in which the Assad regime has assured its survival on part of the country’s territory, while Sunni Islamist, jihadi and Kurdish nationalist elements hold ground in other areas.


The west currently has available and reliable assets on the ground in the form of the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance in the north east of the country, and among the Southern Front rebels in the south west.


A historic process of fragmentation is under way in Syria and Iraq.  It is time to understand the reality and the profound depth and significance of this.  Countries created on an artificial basis are in the process of separating out into their component parts.


The west cannot afford to remain outside this process.  It is therefore of urgent importance that relations with relevant partners be intensified, and that these relationships be used in the bargaining that will follow the conflict.  Islamic State must clearly be destroyed.  The ambitions of the Iranian/Assad/Hizballah/Russian side must be contained.  Sunni Islamism must also be contained.  A partitioned or federalized Syria should be the result. These objectives are achievable.  Allies and assets exist to further them.  Strategic clarity is the first objective from which further gains can follow.






[i]  ‘Confronting Fragmentation,’ Syrian Center for Policy Research, Feb 16, 2016.

[ii] Thomas Joscelyn, ‘Jihadist Coalition Captures Checkpoints around City of Idleb,’  Long War Journal, March 27, 2015.

[iii] Mona Alami, ‘Sahl al-Ghab emerges as main focus of Syrian rebels’ fight against regime,’  Al-Monitor, August 11, 2015.

[iv] Hashmatallah Moslih, ‘Iran ‘Foreign Legion’ leans on Afghan Shia in Syrian War,’  al-Jazeera, January 22, 2016.

[v] Jason Ukman and Liz Sly, ‘Obama: Syrian President Assad Must Step Down,’  Obama: Syrian President Must Step Down,’  Washington Post, August 18, 2011.

[vi] Tara McKelvey, ‘Arming Syrian Rebels: Where the US went wrong,’  BBC Online, October 10, 2015.

[vii] Nick Gass, ‘Obama rebukes Syrian ‘fantasy,’  Politico, August 10, 2014.

[viii] Glenn Kessler, ‘President Obama and the ‘Red Line’ on Syria’s chemical weapons.’  Washington Post, September 6, 2013.

[ix] ‘Syria Chemical Attack: what we know,’  BBC Online, September 24th, 2013.

[x]  ‘Destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons completed,’  Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, January 4, 2016.

[xi] Jonathan Spyer, ‘Did ISIS Use Chemical Weapons against the Kurds in Kobani,’  Middle East Review of International Affairs, October 12, 2014.

[xii] Matt Bradley, ‘ISIS Declares Caliphate,’  Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2014.

[xiii] Jonathan Spyer, ‘The Kurds are for the Kurds,’  Weekly Standard, March 18, 2013.

[xiv] Mehmet Cavid Barkcin, ‘First group of FSA soldiers trained by US, Turkey enters Syria,’  Daily Sabah, July 15, 2015.

[xv]  Conversation with officer serving in Train and Equip Program, Jerusalem, August, 2015.

[xvi] Haid Haid, ‘The Southern Front: Allies without a strategy,’  Heinrich Boll Foundation, August 21, 2015.

[xvii] ‘Syrian government forces regain road from Islamic State: monitor,’  Reuters, February 29, 2016.

[xviii] Patrick Wintour and Shaun Walker, ‘Vladimir Putin orders Russian forces to begin withdrawal from Syria,’  Guardian, March 15, 2016.

[xix] Robin Wright, ‘Is the Islamic State Hurting? The President’s point man on ISIS speaks out,’ New Yorker, March 3, 2016.

[xx] Jonathan Spyer, ‘SDF plays crucial role in Syrian Civil War,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, January, 2016.

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Towards a Coherent Western Policy on Syria

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Interview with Eve Harow

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War, and Madness

Jerusalem Report, 28/3

The cold numbers are the first thing that hit you. Figures telling of a human catastrophe on a scale hard to compute. Suffering on a level to which any rational response seems inadequate – 470,000 people killed, according to the latest estimates; 11.5 percent of the population injured; 45 percent of a country of 22 million made homeless; 4 million refugees and 6.36 million internally displaced persons. Life expectancy is down from 70.5 years in 2010 to an estimated 55.4 years in 2015. Welcome to the Syrian civil war.


For those of us who have covered the war closely, these are not just numbers in black and white. They have behind them searing images and memories impossible to erase.


I remember the throngs of refugees in the olive groves close to the border fence north of Aleppo in the summer of 2012. The battle for the city was raging at its full murderous strength a few kilometers to the south. The refugees, mostly Sunni Arabs, were trying to find a place safe from the destructive intentions of Bashar Assad’s air force. They had no way to get into Turkey. Their forlorn hope was to take their families as close as possible to the border fence. They believed that the Syrian Air Force would not dare to bomb so close to the powerful northern neighbor.


Whole families with small children ‒ some people terribly wounded by the bombings ‒ living in the olive groves with neither shelter nor provisions. But I had been in Aleppo city, too, and I knew that their calculation made sense. Inside the city, the barrel bombs were falling without discrimination. Houses, buildings, lives turned into nothing.


This is what the figures are made of. For five years, this is what the lives of Syrians have looked like. It is the greatest catastrophe to have hit the Levant since World War II.


Few people saw the war coming. For a moment, it looked as though the wave of regional change would pass Syria by. The prison-house state constructed by the Ba’ath Party had strong walls, after all. Its residents seemed too cowed, too intimidated to challenge their dictator.


Assad himself, in a strange interview given to the Wall Street Journal, published January 31, 2011, explained why, in his view, Syria had not and would not experience instability. “We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable,” the dictator said. “Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance.”


Here was the language of the Arab nationalist police state in all its self-assurance and blindness. The prisons full of political prisoners. The citizenry cowed by an all-embracing structure of surveillance and repression. And on top of it all, the “president” blithely insisting to his compliant Western interviewer that the stability was the result of a kind of tacit contract of consent between the regime and the people.


It couldn’t hold. And, of course, it didn’t. As nemesis follows hubris, so in March 2011, demonstrations by schoolchildren in Dera’a province were brutally repressed by the local security forces. A boy called Hamza al-Khatib who was murdered in custody became the symbol for the protests. The unrest spread to other Sunni Arab parts of the country – Homs, Hama, Banias. Assad, whose rule, he had claimed, rested on the unspoken consent of his people, rapidly and predictably abandoned any such nonsense and sought simply to drown the spreading protests in the blood of the protesters.


By summer, the stage was set for the civil war to come. The death toll was rapidly mounting. Western leaders called for Assad’s resignation in August. But Assad was going nowhere. These were the days of the Arab Spring. People power and demonstrations were supposed to be enough to bring down the dictators. This happy narrative neglected to note a fact of salient importance. Deposed dictators – Zine El Abidine Bin-Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Salah in Yemen – had fallen not only or mainly because of popular unrest against them. They were deposed because their patron, the United States of America, chose to abandon them in their hour of need. Assad had chosen different friends. He wasn’t aligned with the West, but with Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. And the response of these two powers, from the very outset, was to provide the dictator with whatever level of support he required to stay in his seat.



The form this took varied. Russia used its Security Council veto at the UN to prevent any concerted action against the regime. Moscow also kept the weapons coming. The Iranians used their expertise in crowd control to help Assad control the demonstrations. By the end of 2011, it was clear that the bright lie of the “Arab Spring,” according to which beautiful young people marching in the streets was all it took to topple dictators, wasn’t going to work in Syria.


At this point, the opposition made the fateful decision to try a different way. Already, groups of recently deserted soldiers were arming themselves to defend the demonstrations against the attentions of Assad’s soldiers. In early 2012, these began to crystallize into the first rebel battalions, organizing not only to defend protests, but also to attack the army and make areas in revolt impassable for the government’s forces. The stage was set for war.


I visited rebel-controlled Syria for the first time during that period. Idlib Province – one of the heartlands of the emergent insurgency. I remember the fevered atmosphere of the time and the hopes of swift victory. I interviewed a recent defector from Assad’s airborne troops in a village called Sarmin close to Idlib City. Lieutenant Bilal Khabir was typical of the type of fighters who were capturing the world’s attention at that time. Young, idealistic and brave, Khabir had deserted his unit after a brother officer was executed for refusing to fire on civilian demonstrators in Dera’a.


“I am with the law, not against the law,” Khabir had told me, as we sat in a halfbuilt structure that formed the rebels’ headquarters in Sarmin. “The regime is fascist and criminal. We expect what happened in Homs to happen here. But even with our simple weapons, we are ready to fight. Either Bashar stays, or we stay. And freedom is the promise of God on earth.”

bilal khabir

They fought. Khabir himself rose to senior command in the rebellion in Idlib, before being terribly wounded in action in 2013. The rebels of Idlib and Aleppo and Dera’a, Quneitra and Raqqa, Homs and Hama and Deir al-Zor and Damascus made much of those areas no-go zones for Assad’s army in the year that followed.


But even then, in those first days, it was possible to discern the sectarian hand inside the velvet glove of the rebellion’s fine words. In Sarmin and Binnish, in February of 2012, Salafi fighting groups separate from the ragtag recent army deserters were already operating openly, apart from the enthusiastic, often younger rebels of the non-Islamist units. As the bloodletting continued in 2012 and 2013, it was these organizations that began to make headway. The secular rebels had no real vision or idea to put in their place. They just wanted to destroy Assad. The ideas came from the Islamists. The money, meanwhile, was coming mainly from Qatar and Turkey. Both these countries favored the emergent Islamist groups, whose inclinations mirrored their own.


And, of course, there was a discernible sectarian logic to the rebellion from the start. The Assad family hailed from the country’s 12 percent Alawi minority. By no means were all those who had benefited from Assad’s rule Alawis. There were Sunni Arabs and others in senior positions. Similarly, it was possible to find non-Sunnis and non-Arabs among the rebels. But the core dynamic was one in which the dictator relied, ultimately, on the support of his sect. The Shabiha, Alawi thugs and criminals, who would later be organized by the Iranians into a well-drilled militia, were crucial to the regime’s survival from the start. Alawi-dominated military units – the special forces, the Republican Guard, the 4th Armored Division – were also relied upon from the outset when the large formations of Sunni conscripts were of doubtful loyalty.


The rebellion, similarly, emerged from the 60 percent Sunni-Arab majority of the country. In the course of 2012 and 2013, the sectarian logic of the war became increasingly inescapable. It was marked by the emergence of new and powerful formations that would play a crucial role. In the summer of 2012, Assad carried out a strategic withdrawal from a large swathe of Syria’s northern border with Turkey. The withdrawal was itself dictated by sectarian logic. Assad was short of manpower. Because of his regime’s narrow base, it had become clear that he did not have sufficient men to hold the entirety of a country largely in revolt against him. This fateful decision, made out of urgent necessity, began the process of fragmentation that is now very advanced in Syria. In the course of 2012 and 2013, the country effectively separated into a number of enclaves that survive to this day.


The regime held on to Damascus and the western coastal areas, and the road links between them.The Sunni rebels and Islamists had the east and south.The local franchise of the Kurdish PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), known as the PYD (Democratic Union Party), established itself as the de facto ruler of three non-contiguous Kurdish enclaves stretching along the Syrian-Turkish border. Their formidable Kurdish YPG militia emerged as one of the most powerful of the military organizations, which now divided control of the territory of Syria between them. The emergence of the Kurdish enclaves was further testimony to the sectarian dynamic now underlying the war.

ypg fighter sere kaniyeh


The rise of extreme Salafi Islamist groups from the womb of the rebellion confirmed the trend. On January 23, 2012, the foundation of the Jabhat an-Nusra li-Ahl ash-Shām (Support Front for the People of the Levant) was announced. Usually shortened to Jabhat al-Nusra, this was the official franchise of the al-Qaida network in Syria. Led by Sheikh Muhammad al-Julani it quickly gained a reputation for military effectiveness and particular ruthlessness. Then, in May 2013, in the course of a dispute between the Nusra leadership and the leadership of the Iraqi franchise of al-Qaida, a faction began operating in Syria under the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, or ISIL). Little noticed at the time, this jihadi group was set to transform the Syrian conflict, and then the region.


I entered Syria for reporting purposes on numerous occasions during that period. Amid the chaos and suffering, it was possible to discern that something extraordinary was taking place. The state structures that had existed since the early 20th century in this area – “Syria” and later “Iraq” were effectively ceasing to exist.


The old borders did not deter the military groups. Journalists crossed “illegally” with rebel assistance. Sometimes the crossings were lengthy and perilous affairs. But, more often, the border was hardly noticed, fictionalized. What had appeared at the beginning to be a war of a populace against a brutal dictatorship turned out to be something else entirely. The walls of the prison-house states of Syria and Iraq had been breached. New and unfamiliar entities were making war among the ruins.

with ypg fighter

In the Turkish border town of Kielis, in the early summer of 2014, I interviewed two ISIS members. I had just crossed back from Syria, after visiting the besieged Kurdish Kobani enclave.


At a place called Haj Ismail, a few days previously, comrades of the two men I met in Kielis had been shooting at me while I was interviewing a YPG commander at a forward position. The ISIS positions were about 200 meters away, across a flat, blank landscape. The firing began and I ran after the fighters as they raced for a machine-gun position behind some sandbags to return fire. It was a routine incident along a tense section of frontline. But it was passingly strange to be sitting in a room chatting and drinking tea with the men on the other side of the lines, just two days later.


The two men called themselves Abu Muhammad and Abu Nur. They were both Syrians. “If ISIS falls, you can forget about Sunni people in Syria,” Abu Muhammad told me, after relating the story of his own long journey to the jihadi organization. The men were animated by a strange combination of local sectarianism and vast, millennial hostility to the West. The two fitted seamlessly together and the power of their combination was evident in the rapid growth of ISIS and the bloodthirsty fanaticism of its fighters.


As for the movement’s goal, Abu Nur spoke about it with reverence. ‘We want the caliphate, something old and new, from the time of Muhammad. The Europeans came here and created false borders. We want to break these borders.” ISIS, in other words, was emerging directly from the reality of the Levant in 2014.


The situation, indeed, was becoming increasingly clear. As my friend Mahmoud, a onetime teacher turned political analyst and a supporter of the rebels bluntly expressed it, “In Syria, today, there are three groups worth mentioning. ISIS, the regime and the Kurds. Nothing else.”


The reality of fragmentation and sectarian war burst across the borders a few months after that interview with the astonishing advance of ISIS into Iraq. By August, the jihadis had reached the gates of Baghdad and Erbil. They were stopped only after the entry of US air power into the fray.


The advance of ISIS into Iraq brought the logic of the Syrian war into the larger neighboring country. In the dramatic and terrifying events around Sinjar Mountain that summer ‒ the harrowing attempt at the genocide of the Yazidi people ‒the sheer savagery of the Sunni jihadis was laid bare. Here was a horror that defied description. But, while the singling out of the Yazidis carried with it a special evil, the Assad regime remained responsible for, by far, the largest number of the deaths in Syria.


The situation today retains the essential contours that emerged in mid-2014. The Syrian war has metastasized across borders. As a result, neither Syria, nor Iraq, nor indeed Lebanon any longer constitute states in the usually understood sense of that word. Rather, the entire vast landscape between the Iraq-Iran border and the Mediterranean Sea is, today, divided up between various political-military organizations and arrangements, almost exclusively organized along religious sectarian or ethnic lines.

ktaeb hizballah fighters

They vary in orientation from the radical secularism and socialist outlook of the Syrian Kurds in autonomous “Rojava” to the murderous and apocalyptic Sunni jihadism of the Islamic State.


Along the way, one may find the Iran-oriented Shi’ite Islamism of Hezbollah and the Shi’ite militias of Iraq, the pro-Western, tribal conservatism of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, and various types of Sunni Islamism in the poorly governed wastelands of the Syrian-Sunni rebels.


The war has, of course, also impacted far beyond the Middle East itself. The US and the West have staunchly sought to keep their involvement to a minimum. But, today, Western air power and special forces are playing a key role in the effort to reduce and destroy the Islamic State.


Further west, the Russian intervention after September 2015 almost certainly saved the Assad regime from destruction and reversed the course of the war. Currently, there are peace negotiations in Geneva and a fitfully observed cease-fire.


But the cease-fire relates only to the original war in Syria (regime vs. rebels). It doesn’t impact on the other conflicts that emerged from its womb (YPG/SDF against ISIS, rebels against Kurds, KRG and Iraq against ISIS, Turks against PKK, regime against ISIS.


The bombings in Brussels on March 22 are the latest demonstration of the far reach of the war. What began with demonstrations by schoolchildren in Dera’a has now turned into a process of flux and convulsion of historic proportion.


I think of the Syrian war, and my mind is filled once more with memories of astonishing vividness: The deep blue of the sky during a barrel bombing of the Sha’ar neighborhood in Aleppo, in the scorching summer of 2012. YPG fighters crossing the Tigris River in dinghies by night, in dead silence. The swishing of the water, the stars reflected in it and the blank expanse ahead. A hospital for Kurdish fighters in Derik, in summer 2014, filled with men wounded in the fight to open the corridor to Sinjar Mountain and the trapped Yazidis.Very dark-skinned Ktaeb Hezbollah militiamen at a frontline position just east of Ramadi city in Iraq in July 2015. The ghost-like figures of ISIS men, in black, running quickly past a gap in their defensive position. The first rebels, in Idlib Province, with hope, long since lost. The Yazidi refugees, just down from Sinjar, at the Newroz refugee camp in summer 2014, their exhausted, haunted eyes and the black horror of the things they described.

yezidi refugee

We are left with the bare facts behind all this – facts with which the policymaking echelon in the West has only just begun to grapple. The prison-house states are broken to pieces. The forces released from their ruins are swirling and clashing across the region and heading beyond it. Syria has become one of the hinges upon which regional and global events turn. The reputations of great powers, global and regional, are being made and broken among its ruins. It is war, and madness. And it is far from over.


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Assessing the Syrian cease-fire

Jerusalem Post, 13/3

The cease-fire that came into effect in Syria on February 27 is a partial success. Humanitarian convoys have begun to get through to some of the areas besieged by government forces. The death toll is sharply down. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the civilian death toll in Syria fell by 90 percent last week. This was accompanied by an 80% decline in deaths among combatants on all sides.

“Proximity” talks between the sides are set to commence in Geneva on Wednesday.

So does the cease-fire in Syria represent the beginnings of an endgame in the long and bloody civil war which has racked the country since mid-2011?

This is a war in which, according to a recent report by the Damascus-based Syrian Center for Policy Research, up to 470,000 people have died. Fully 11.5% of the population have been killed or injured, and 45% have left their homes.

As of now, there remains very little chance of the implementation of the plan as outlined in Vienna last November for the diplomatic process in Syria. According to this plan, within six months of the commencement of negotiations, the sides are to establish a “credible, inclusive and nonsectarian” transitional government. This government will then set about drafting a new constitution and holding free and fair UN-supervised election within 18 months.

The tentative success of the February 27 cease-fire notwithstanding, this plan still sounds utterly unrealistic. Its main stumbling block remains the core disagreement between regime and opposition over the future role of President Bashar Assad. For the opposition, any role for Assad in the course of the transition remains utterly unacceptable.

For Assad, riding high on the results of the Russian intervention which began in September last year, there is no reason to compromise or contemplate departure. On the contrary, the Syrian dictator bullishly (and absurdly) announced this week that parliamentary elections will take place across Syria on April 13.

Since the officially sanctioned diplomatic process remains somewhat other-wordly, and yet the cease-fire has not been a total failure, what direction are events likely to take?

As of now, Syria has fragmented, and a host of related conflicts are taking place over its ruins. The Russian intervention has effectively removed from the table the possibility of the military destruction of the dictatorship. For this to be achieved, an air force capable of besting that of the Russians, who guarantee Assad’s survival, would need to enter the fray. Such air power is possessed only by the US. Washington has absolutely no intention of acting as the air wing of the Syrian Sunni rebels, in a way analogous to that of the Russians vis-à-vis the regime.

Since this is likely to remain the case, it follows that there is no longer any credible military threat to the continued existence of the Assad regime in its enclave in Damascus, in the western coastal area, in the cities of western Syria and in the areas linking them.

This being said, it remains the case that a regime reconquest of the entirety of Syria also remains unlikely. Assad, in a recent interview, declared this to be his goal. But it is unlikely that the actual forces that could conceivably achieve this goal for him – Russian air power and Iranian proxies on the ground – are interested in pursuing it. Iran is withdrawing Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel from northwest Syria. The immediate goal of preventing any threat to the regime has been achieved. The Iranian regime does not appear to wish to commit its own forces to the mutual slaughterhouse that a campaign to reconquer all of rebel and Sunni jihadist-controlled Syria would entail.

The Russians, too, are now withdrawing. They appear wary of a long and grinding campaign of reconquest. With a devalued ruble and very low oil prices, it is not clear that they could sustain the necessary expenditure. Again, the goal of the Russian campaign appears to have been to preserve the regime enclave, not to enter an all out assault for the reunification of Syria by military means.

Even Assad himself may be aware that an attempt at reunifying the country under his rule would bring back the original dilemma that caused his withdrawal in the first place. Assad does not possess sufficient forces to securely govern those areas that reject his rule. The Russian intervention has not altered this core reality.

Russia wants to see the removal of Ukraine-related sanctions on it, and to be treated as a world power. Backing its allies and ensuring their survival forms a part of this. An ongoing bloody campaign of reconquest is unlikely to do so.

So if the disparate rebellion can’t beat Assad, and if Assad is unlikely to achieve or even try for a knockout blow against the rebellion, and if there is no basis for a negotiated settlement, doesn’t that mean that the diplomacy is doomed, the cease-fire bound to be short-lived, and a return to full blown conflict inevitable?

Maybe, but not necessarily. It is worth remembering that there are two other vital players on the Syrian map, apart from the Assad regime and the Sunni Arab rebellion. The two other elements are the Kurds, and Islamic State. As of now, a Western-backed military alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is making steady headway against Islamic State. If this progress can continue, the prospect opening up in Syria will be for a Russian-guaranteed, Assad-ruled west, and a US-guaranteed east, in which Islamic State has either been destroyed or is in the process of eclipse.

On this basis, with neither side able to dislodge the other and neither side having an obvious interest in continued conflict (or with each side deterred by inescapable realities if they do), it is possible to imagine the beginning of a diplomatic process based on the emergence of a confederal or de facto divided Syria.

Such an outcome is, of course, not certain, but it is possible. If it does not emerge, the bloodletting in Syria is likely to recommence with full force in the future, and the current cease-fire to be remembered as little more than a brief respite.



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A recent interview on CBN


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