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Syria: The Promise of Worse to Come and How to Avoid It
Syria: The Promise of Worse to Come and How to Avoid It
A man gestures as people rush to a site hit by what activists said was heavy shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus, on 16 June 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Report 163 / Middle East & North Africa

New Approach in Southern Syria

Syria’s civil war is stuck in a vicious cycle, and the U.S. is best placed to change the appalling status quo. Washington should take advantage of opportunities in southern Syria to launch a new policy to improve the chance of a political settlement, chiefly by deterring regime aerial attacks on rebel-held civilian areas.

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Executive Summary

The Syrian war rages on, its devastating civilian toll rising with no viable political solution in sight. Diplomacy is stymied by the warring parties’ uncompromising positions, reinforced by political deadlock between their external backers. The U.S. is best placed to transform the status quo. A significant but realistic policy shift focused on dissuading, deterring or otherwise preventing the regime from conducting aerial attacks within opposition-held areas could improve the odds of a political settlement. This would be important, because today they are virtually nil. Such a policy shift could begin in southern Syria, where conditions are currently most favourable.

While the White House has declared its desire for an end of President Bashar Assad’s rule, it has shied from concrete steps toward this goal, pursuing instead a strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (IS), which it deems a more serious threat to its interests. Yet, a year into that strategy, the overall power of Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria (as in Iraq) has risen. This is no surprise: the Assad regime’s sectarian strategy, collective punishment tactics and reliance on Iran-backed militias, among other factors, help perpetuate ideal recruitment conditions for these groups. By attacking IS while ignoring the regime’s ongoing bombardment of civilians, the U.S. inadvertently strengthens important aspects of the Salafi-jihadi narrative depicting the West as colluding with Tehran and Damascus to subjugate Sunnis.

Salafi-jihadi groups, including IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate which fights both IS and the regime, are strongest in the north and east, where they have exploited disarray and conflicting priorities among the opposition’s external sponsors. While the U.S. has attached greatest importance to the battle against IS, for example, Turkey has pressed for a more concerted effort to topple the Assad regime, while pushing back against Kurdish groups allied with Iran. Continuing disagreement has prevented establishment of a northern no-fly zone, a key Turkish demand.

Southern Syria currently provides the best environment for a new approach. Beginning in early 2014, increased assistance from Western and Arab states and improved coordination among the southern armed opposition factions they support sparked a string of victories against regime forces, enabling these factions to gain strength relative to Salafi-jihadi groups. With these factions in the lead, by late January 2015 opposition forces had gained control over contiguous territory encompassing most of Quneitra province and the western third of Deraa province. A major regime counter-offensive the next month south of Damascus, with unprecedented Iranian and Hizbollah support, recaptured only a small share of territory and failed to halt the momentum of opposition forces that extended their territory through much of eastern Deraa between March and June. An opposition offensive is ongoing in late summer to capture the portion of Deraa’s provincial capital still under regime control.

Some of this success can be attributed to the steady erosion of regime military capacity, which manpower constraints suggest will continue. This may force Assad to deepen reliance on Iran-backed militias in areas he fears losing, or concede these to the opposition and resort to aerial attacks (including barrel bombs) to keep them ungovernable. In either scenario, Salafi-jihadi groups would gain further traction, lowering prospects for resolving the conflict politically. Avoiding this requires a joint strategy among the opposition’s backers to empower credible opposition elements to fill the military and civil voids on the ground by establishing effective civil administrations. The south, where Salafi-jihadi groups are weakest, is the most favourable starting ground.

As has become clear throughout Syria, however, opposition elements cannot build effective governance amid the death and destruction caused by aerial bombardment, particularly given the regime’s tendency to target precisely those facilities necessary for capacity to emerge. Diplomatic admonitions which are not backed by concrete action carry little weight with the regime’s backers, and are unlikely to halt Assad’s use of air attacks as part of a scorched-earth strategy and a way to mete out collective punishment. The U.S. needs to be ready to pursue other means at its disposal, and to signal that readiness.

The Obama administration has sought to avoid that deeper involvement in the conflict, due to scepticism about what a more robust policy could achieve and concern that the regime’s allies might retaliate against U.S. personnel and interests elsewhere. But this conflict will not end without a shift in U.S. policy. In addition to improving living conditions in the south, it could also significantly help in degrading Salafi-jihadi power and otherwise improve prospects for an eventual negotiated end of the war.

It would do so, first, by enabling opposition groups to consolidate military control and establish governance capacity in the south. This would improve their strength and credibility vis-à-vis Salafi-jihadi groups and could incentivise their development as political actors capable of governing their areas.

Secondly, achieving a zone free of aerial attacks in the south could provide a model for a different approach by the rebels’ state backers in the north, where poor coordination and divergent priorities with Ankara, Doha and Riyadh have contributed to a situation not conducive to an escalated U.S. role. A move by Washington to halt regime aerial attacks in the south could signal it would consider doing so in the north as well, if those allies would assist in bringing about a similar shift in the northern balance of power away from Salafi-jihadi groups.

Thirdly, a U.S. push to halt regime air attacks in the south would signal resolve to the regime’s most important backers, Iran and Hizbollah, and demonstrate that the returns on their investments in the status quo will further diminish. Iranian and Hiz­bollah officials play down the long-term costs of their involvement, believing they can outlast their opponents in a proxy war of attrition, and viewing the price of doing so as preferable to negotiating a resolution that includes an end to Assad’s rule. Their view appears based, in part, on the assumption that Washington’s narrow focus on IS and reluctance to confront the regime are pushing its policy toward accepting Assad’s political survival and thus, ultimately, a resolution of the conflict more favourable to them.

The U.S. initiative described here could help refute that assumption and put weight behind the White House’s assertions that the nuclear deal will not pave the way for Iranian hegemony in the region. This message of resolve should be paired with a parallel one indicating U.S. willingness to take the core interests of the regime’s backers into account in any political deal to end the war.

Beirut/Brussels, 2 September 2015

Syria: The Promise of Worse to Come and How to Avoid It

With the war in Syria set to continue well into 2017, many of the conflict's core challenges remain unresolved. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, we encourage the EU and its member states to use future funding and reconstruction as a lever to ensure that meaningful progress is made toward an overarching political settlement.

This commentary on the war in Syria is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

The fall of eastern Aleppo to regime and allied forces is a potentially pivotal moment in the Syrian war. Employing familiar tools–including massive collective punishment of the civilian population and reliance on foreign militiamen–the capture of Aleppo removed a uniquely valuable card from the opposition’s hand. It also dealt a staggering blow to non-jihadist factions, which had dominated the city’s rebel-held neighbourhoods and whose defeat has long been a priority for Damascus. Having achieved such a significant gain at manageable cost, the regime will be tempted to push on with additional offensives employing a similar playbook. If Damascus and its allies do so against other well-populated opposition strongholds – such as Eastern Ghouta, the western Aleppo countryside, and parts of Idlib province – casualty and displacement levels will soar. Under this scenario, options for a meaningful settlement or negotiated de-escalation will constrict further. Preventing it calls for a clear understanding of what points of leverage exist to influence the decision-making of the regime and its allies.

The Regime’s Limitations

Even as it notched up a coveted win in Aleppo, the regime’s limitations and vulnerabilities remain on full display. Regime forces defending the city of Palmyra proved no match for a December attack by the Islamic State (IS), which quickly seized the city for a second time – less than nine months after Damascus and its allies had hailed its recapture as a signature achievement. The lesson was clear: while the regime, Russia and Iran are capable of employing sufficient violence and resources to gain ground against opposition forces on top-priority fronts, these campaigns leave them vulnerable to attacks elsewhere.

There is no indication that Russia on its own has the will and capacity to deliver sustained ceasefire compliance from Damascus, much less meaningful political concessions.

The regime seeks to eventually retake all Syrian territory, and Bashar al-Assad has depicted victory in Aleppo as a springboard for further offensives against rebel strongholds. Yet, he cannot dictate priorities on his own; taking and holding additional ground in the north west would require significant help from Iran-backed militias, and even that support might prove insufficient if not accompanied by Russian airpower. Much is in the hands of Tehran and Moscow, who each have their own agendas in Syria.

Iran and Russia’s Differing Agendas

While Iran has tended to share the regime’s enthusiasm for targeting remaining opposition territory in western Syria – the most strategically valuable swath of the country – Russia’s priorities are more ambiguous. It has often appeared more concerned than its allies about overstretch of pro-regime forces – a significant risk that will increase if they attempt to advance into Idlib. The dominant rebel factions controlling Idlib (Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda-linked Fatah al-Sham), though riven by divisions, are likely to prove more capable than their Aleppo counterparts. Moscow’s manoeuvring in the immediate aftermath of the Aleppo victory suggests it is in no rush to test the waters in Idlib, choosing to focus on an expanded diplomatic track with Turkey rather than additional military offensives. It seems to want a political process amenable to its interests and preserving (and eventually rebuilding) regime structures; it may be less concerned about the regime restoring its authority over all of Syria, especially if this would mean further regime exhaustion and fragmentation. Moscow has also signalled more openness to a decentralised post-conflict Syria than is currently evident in Tehran or Damascus.

Russia and Turkey: Prospects for a Ceasefire?

Russian-Turkish engagement produced a ceasefire agreement in late December which has lowered violence in parts of the country – in particular the north west – but which appears unsustainable. As in previous “Cessations of Hostilities” negotiated by Moscow and Washington, prospects are limited by the fact that key players on each side – the regime and Iran on one hand, and Fatah al-Sham and a smattering of other opposition hardliners on the other – appear to view adherence to the ceasefire as detrimental to their own interests. The fact that Fatah al-Sham is expressly excluded from the ceasefire, and that its forces in some areas fight alongside rebels who have joined the truce, leaves room for manoeuvre for those on either side who want to continue military operations. Regime and Iran-backed forces have done just that against opposition-held pockets outside Damascus. Here they have arguably benefitted from the decline in rebel activity immediately resulting from the ceasefire, while virtually guaranteeing that the truce (and whatever constraints it imposes on regime ambitions) will be short-lived. And as long as pro-regime offensives against opposition forces elsewhere continue, Turkey’s willingness and capacity to restrain its rebel allies in the north will erode. Indeed, a pair of rebel attacks on regime forces in Lattakia and Hama provinces on 9 February, launched following an uptick in regime airstrikes in central and northern Syria, suggests that what remains of the ceasefire is crumbling.

The same dynamic limits the prospects of talks between regime and opposition delegations, including those that took place in Astana in late January – another product of the Russian-Turkish rapprochement – and scheduled for Geneva in late February. Even if Moscow and Ankara are serious about using talks to reinforce the ceasefire and pave the way for a meaningful political track, their means of achieving either are limited. There is no indication that Russia on its own has the will and capacity to deliver sustained ceasefire compliance from Damascus, much less meaningful political concessions. Forcing the regime’s hand would likely require Iranian help, which is unlikely so long as Tehran prefers to focus on pursuing battlefield gains in areas it deems critical to its interests. Uncertainty regarding the new U.S. administration’s stance on Syria further muddies the waters; actors on both sides of the conflict are keen to create favourable facts on the ground while U.S. engagement is minimal, but are unlikely to make fundamental shifts until they have a sense of Washington’s intent.

The regime, as witnessed with Palmyra, lacks the capacity to reliably hold much of the territory currently outside its control once it has seized it (let alone stabilise or govern those areas). Yet it can achieve gains in the short run as long as Iran-backed militias and Russia are willing to provide the necessary manpower and air support. The result could be a harrowing continuation of civilian casualties and displacement. This may also render non-jihadist portions of the opposition politically irrelevant, and remove any prospect of their asserting the upper hand over jihadist rivals. That, in turn, would reduce whatever opportunity remains for a meaningful settlement or negotiated de-escalation. It would shift the main conflict to an eroded regime’s counter-insurgency campaign against well-entrenched jihadists, backed by foreign firepower and reliant on collective punishment.

Map of Syria. International Crisis Group

Limiting Further Catastrophe

Preventing that grim scenario should take priority. Though the European Union (EU) and its member states have played only marginal roles in the conflict’s military and political dynamics, their potential to help fund stabilisation and reconstruction provides leverage – all the more so because the regime’s backers are unlikely to be willing or able to do so. They should employ this to discourage the belligerents’ maximalist objectives and incentivise compromise within the pro-regime camp. Toward that end, they should reaffirm, and unite behind, the credo no reconstruction without credible transition, clarifying that they will provide reconstruction funding only within the context of a political settlement which has buy-in from the conflict’s regional players and a critical mass of the non-jihadist opposition.

European governments eager to minimise the displacement and radicalisation resulting from the conflict must resist the allure of wishful thinking.

European governments eager to minimise the displacement and radicalisation resulting from the conflict must resist the allure of wishful thinking. Bashar al-Assad will not negotiate his own departure, Moscow and Tehran have shown no willingness to push him toward the door, and current momentum suggests neither of those realities will change in the foreseeable future. However, accepting that the pro-regime camp has the upper hand, and providing reconstruction funding in absence of a credible settlement, does not offer plausible means of addressing Europe’s primary concerns. Due to the regime’s weaknesses, and the depth and breadth of animosity toward it, a robust insurgency is likely to continue. The regime would combat it with the same collective punishment tactics and militias it has employed throughout the conflict, fuelling additional displacement and radicalisation. The regime would also resist meaningful reform, encouraged by its military victories and the fact that it won’t be able to rule huge chunks of the country and population except through threat of overwhelming brutality.

Europe by itself cannot address these problems solely by applying conditionality to reconstruction funding, as the regime’s will and capacity to evade commitments far exceeds Europe’s will and capacity to enforce them. Instead, funding for reconstruction in government-controlled areas would likely be diverted toward the regime’s war effort. This, in turn, would further erode Western credibility, and provide dangerous incentives to authoritarians embroiled in conflicts elsewhere.

 Escaping Syria’s vicious cycles requires a settlement agreed among and facilitated by the conflict’s main external players – Iran, Russia, Turkey and the U.S. – and tolerable to a critical mass of Syrian combatants on both sides. It must take into account not only the current battlefield power balance, but also Syria’s geopolitical and demographic realities; otherwise the remaining insurgency may prove uncontainable. The EU and member states should make clear that reconstruction funding will await such a settlement, and is contingent upon its continued implementation. In the meantime, European diplomacy can further explore potential components of such a settlement, including decentralisation allowing local governance in areas currently outside regime control.