What's at Stake in the Syrian Peace Talks in Astana?
What's at Stake in the Syrian Peace Talks in Astana?
What Comes After the Bloody Battle for Aleppo?
What Comes After the Bloody Battle for Aleppo?
Participants at the Syria peace talks meet in Astana, Kazakhstan, for the first session on 23 January 2017. SPUTNIK/Болат Шайхинов

What's at Stake in the Syrian Peace Talks in Astana?

As a new round of Russian and Turkish-backed peace talks on Syria gets underway, Senior Syria Analyst Noah Bonsey looks at the shifting political dynamics and the challenges ahead.

What’s on the agenda for the peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan?

Here in Astana, the spotlight is on the talks between the Syrian government and members of the armed opposition, but this is largely theatrics. Indeed, among the diplomats, journalists and analysts waiting in the hotel lobby and pub, there is a growing sense that we are also part of the show. The more substantive event involves trilateral discussions among Russia, Turkey and Iran, yet little has been revealed about their content. 

The very fact that Russia, Turkey, and Iran are driving the talks – with limited participation from the U.S. as an observer, and none at all from Saudi Arabia – reflects the extent to which the centre of gravity in the Syrian war has shifted. This is the result of military progress by the regime and its backers, declining U.S. influence (for the moment at least) in the conflict’s central power struggle, and Riyadh’s stepping back from a role in Syria (due to its Yemeni quagmire and the weakening of its preferred rebel partners).

For those assembled in Astana, a principal focus is on the faltering, partially-observed ceasefire negotiated by Russia and Turkey in late December after the regime recaptured the eastern half of Aleppo. In theory, the ceasefire covers all parts of the country controlled by non-jihadist opposition and pro-regime forces, while allowing continued attacks on the Islamic State and Fath al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which until recently maintained official links to al-Qaeda. In practice, the ceasefire has lowered violence in the north, but failed to prevent continued regime offensives against opposition-held areas in the countryside around Damascus in the south.

It is significant that the talks are in Russia’s geopolitical backyard, and the ball is now largely in Moscow’s court. Will it go further than it has done to date in pressing for a sustainable ceasefire capable of maintaining Turkish buy-in and adherence from non-jihadist rebels? If it chooses to do so, can it secure regime and Iranian cooperation? We don’t yet know the answers.

Are there signs that these talks will go any better than the many failed international efforts over the course of the war?

Russia, Iran and Turkey all have significant leverage on the ground in Syria, which could be used to dramatically reduce the level of violence. 

Unfortunately, key dynamics that contributed to the ultimate failure of previous partial ceasefires remain in place. There are still big questions concerning the positions of Damascus and Tehran. The regime seems intent to stay on the attack, including through using Aleppo as a springboard to take additional territory in north-western Idlib province. Iran does not express its preferences so openly, but since Russia’s intervention began in September 2015, Tehran and its proxies have clearly shown they see advantage in staying on the offensive.

It is significant that the talks are in Russia’s geopolitical backyard, and the ball is now largely in Moscow’s court.

The regime and Iran-backed militias pursue local rather than national ceasefires; they achieve the former on favourable terms by applying relentless collective punishment to opposition-held areas, then exploit the resulting calm to shift forces toward escalation elsewhere. These deals are a key component of their military strategy, allowing them to expand their control while minimising strain on their limited manpower.

A national ceasefire, if implemented, would bar additional offensives against the non-jihadist opposition, and thus is not desirable from their perspective. Indeed, regime and Iranian reluctance to forego opportunities for military advance was key to the erosion of the first Cessation of Hostilities in early 2016. It also helps explain why the current ceasefire has failed to take hold around Damascus, where eliminating remaining pockets of resistance is a top regime and Iranian priority. The rebel stronghold of Idlib province also contains what appear to be key regime and Iranian objectives – notably the town of Jisr al-Shaghour and surrounding areas adjacent to regime-held Lattakia province, and the Shiite villages of Foua and Kefraya.

For the ceasefire to have any chance of extended success, more is required of the agreement’s co-sponsors. Turkey would need to do more to incentivise rebel implementation and penalise violators among all opposition groups that it supports, including Ahrar al-Sham. Russia would need to do more to curb attacks by its allies, using their dependence on its air support as leverage. Bringing Iran on board is crucial, as it has ample tools with which to thwart the implementation of any deal achieved at its expense. On that front, Iran’s role within and following the Astana talks will be interesting to watch.

Can there be an effective ceasefire without engaging elements of the jihadist opposition as well, if not the Islamic State, then possibly Fath al-Sham?

Indeed, Fath al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist faction linked to al-Qaeda and one of the strongest rebel forces, constitutes a huge obstacle to a sustained ceasefire. As in the previous Cessations of Hostilities, Fath al-Sham is excluded from this accord. In fact, in each ceasefire it has faced the prospect of becoming the primary victim, as any sustained drop in violence within such a framework is likely to highlight diverging interests between the jihadist group and the rest of the armed opposition, while allowing continued strikes against it in the meantime. Moreover, the exclusion of Fath al-Sham provides a gigantic loophole for the regime and its allies to continue attacks, using the presence of Fath al-Sham fighters, real or imagined, as a pretext. This occurred during the early 2016 Cessation of Hostilities, and is currently happening in Wadi al-Barada, north-west of Damascus, which the regime has continued to attack throughout the ceasefire. (The regime cites the alleged presence of Fath al-Sham in justifying its Wadi al-Barada offensive; the group’s presence is disputed, but it appears to compose at most a small minority of rebel fighters there).

The combined spoiling potential of the regime, Iran (including its militia proxies) and Fath al-Sham is immense, and mutually reinforcing. Offensives by the former two are used as justification for attacks by the latter, and vice versa. Over time, repeated perceived violations of the ceasefire make it easy for Fath al-Sham to convince fellow rebels to resume attacks. We saw this during the early 2016 Cessation of Hostilities, when northern factions participating in the agreement initially abstained from offensives launched by Fath al-Sham (then known as Jabhat al-Nusra), but later were persuaded to join them. Any erosion of non-jihadist rebel participation in the ceasefire heightens eagerness in Damascus and Tehran to regain the military initiative, and may increase pressure on Russia to provide the requisite air support.

A viable ceasefire will require a reconsideration of Fath al-Sham’s exclusion. In theory, if there is consensus on the priority of lowering violence in Syria, it would be better to attempt including Fath al-Sham in any ceasefire. If they accept, great; if they refuse, the task of isolating them from more pragmatic opposition elements might ease. In practice, however, there has been no such consensus, and achieving Russian, Iranian or even American buy-in for a deal including the group is unrealistic.
Working within those constraints, the best alternative would be to include within the ceasefire, for a defined period of time, areas in which Fath al-Sham maintains some presence but does not enjoy unilateral control. A sustained halt of pro-regime attacks in these areas would allow Turkey and its opposition allies time to employ the space, resources and political capital needed to address the Fath al-Sham problem in their midst.

What does the opposition stand to gain from attending these talks?

The opposition enters the negotiations from a weak position. The loss of eastern Aleppo had significant military and political ramifications, exacerbating divisions among and within its armed factions. This was most notable along a familiar faultline between hard-line Salafi-jihadists and more pragmatic non-jihadist rebels who define themselves as “revolutionaries”. That surge in tension threatens to split one of the most powerful rebel factions, Ahrar al-Sham, which has long straddled that faultline. It has also fuelled clashes between members of Fath al-Sham and the allied jihadist faction Jund al-Aqsa, on one hand, and Ahrar al-Sham and smaller “revolutionary” factions on the other. The most significant of this in-fighting began on 23 January, when Fath al-Sham launched a pre-coordinated offensive on Jaish al-Mujahideen, a non-jihadist faction based west of Aleppo (see below).

A viable ceasefire will require a reconsideration of Fath al-Sham’s exclusion.

Ankara was able to convince most of the “revolutionary” factions to attend the Astana talks, with the notable exception of Ahrar al-Sham. They will want to strengthen and expand the ceasefire. Yet weakness on the battlefield limits the opposition delegation’s leverage in the talks, and divisions within opposition ranks raises the potential costs and risks of any perceived concession to which they may agree.
Negotiating under such difficult circumstances with an adversary like the Syrian regime, which avoided meaningful compromise even when it was much weaker, means there isn’t much the opposition delegates can accomplish by themselves in Astana. They seek to broaden implementation of the ceasefire, but for that they are dependent first upon Turkey’s ability to secure compromise from Russia, and second upon Russia’s capacity to win Iranian acceptance and regime implementation of that compromise. The uneven implementation of the current ceasefire indicates that while Turkish-Russian engagement is high, it is insufficient to shift how the regime and Iran address their military priorities around Damascus.

What is the impact on peace prospects of Turkey’s big about-turn in Syria?

A notable factor distinguishing this ceasefire from previous “Cessations of Hostilities” is the degree of direct Turkish involvement. For now at least, Turkey has replaced the U.S. as Russia’s primary interlocutor in negotiating such arrangements. This is significant, as Turkey enjoys more direct leverage over, and trust among, the opposition’s non-jihadist armed factions that are party to these agreements.

Turkey is the most important ally of the opposition, and its shift toward significant coordination with Russia has become a major bone of contention in intra-opposition wrangling. Ankara pushed its rebel partners to agree to a ceasefire and to attend the Astana talks mostly for reasons of its own: it is preoccupied with its trans-border struggle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate, cognisant of the opposition’s weakening military hand, and keen to build on improved relations with Moscow. Most of the factions complied, despite intense counter-pressure from Fath al-Sham.

Where does Turkey’s change of heart leave the Syrian opposition?

The bottom line is that the opposition’s “revolutionary” factions, including Ahrar al-Sham, are at a strategic crossroads. 
Do they stick together alongside Turkey, which has de-emphasised – though not entirely dropped – the goal of replacing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but which can help the opposition preserve the territory it still holds via a combination of continued military support and, potentially, negotiated arrangements with Russia? This path constrains the non-jihadist opposition’s offensive options, at least in the short run, and further increases tensions with Fath al-Sham. But it offers them the best opportunity to maintain territory and political relevance.

The opposition’s “revolutionaries” should thus be clear: continuing to tie their fates to that of Fath al-Sham will push their rebellion ... into a long-term asymmetric insurgency.

Alternatively, the non-jihadist opposition could reject the diplomatic tack Turkey is urging, and move closer to Fath al-Sham. This could spare them the embarrassment of bitter compromise, and lower the risks of an intra-rebel war. But it might also cost them their state support, and would almost certainly subject them to increased military pressure. With no ceasefire on the table, Russia would likely throw its weight behind expanded and intensified military offensives. As the fate of eastern Aleppo made clear, that would entail immense bloodshed and destruction in opposition areas, resulting ultimately in further loss of territory.

The opposition’s “revolutionaries” should thus be clear: continuing to tie their fates to that of Fath al-Sham will transform their role in the conflict. It will reduce the scope of territory they control and push their rebellion, by choice or default, into a strategy of long-term asymmetric insurgency. That would suit Fath al-Sham’s leadership and other Salafi-jihadists just fine – the tactics required play to their comparative advantages, and they appear to prefer continued war in pursuit of ideological objectives over compromise aimed at preserving what remains of the rebels’ territorial gains and protecting the social fabric of local communities. The radicals’ profit, however, would be the “revolutionary” factions’ loss. More dependent on external state support and less proficient in insurgent tactics than their jihadist counterparts, they would lose relative weight within the rebellion alongside their continued territorial losses, and thus forfeit political relevance.

Could you tell us more about the current fighting betwen Fath al-Sham and other rebels?

Fath al-Sham’s attack on Jaish al-Mujahideen west of Aleppo was no surprise. 
The decision by several “revolutionary” factions (including Jaish al-Mujahideen) to attend Astana talks further heightened tensions between them and Fath al-Sham. Another factor exacerbating that rift is the recent expansion and escalation of U.S. strikes targeting Fath al-Sham leadership and facilities. The U.S. has played a role in supporting Jaish al-Mujahideen and other “revolutionary” factions over the last three years, so the fact that U.S. drones are now killing Fath al-Sham leaders both fuels jihadist suspicion toward those factions and provides a pretext to attack them.

The Fath al-Sham offensive has sparked broad anger within the rest of the armed opposition, and many are expressing solidarity with Jaish al-Mujahideen. But that alone won’t add up to much, given Fath al-Sham’s skill in divide-and-conquer tactics and knack for taking the initiative. If the “revolutionary” factions do not coordinate better to deter and defend against such attacks, their role in northern Syria will erode further still. 

How comfortable can the Damascus regime and its allies be as the opposition’s many problems multiply?

The regime and its allies are in a much better position than the opposition at the moment, indeed more comfortable in some respects than they have been since 2012. Yet even with their military momentum at its height, an obvious Achilles’ heel remains: the shortage of capable, reliable Syrian fighters.

The juxtaposition in December of the regime’s Aleppo victory and its rapid loss of Palmyra to the Islamic State are instructive: while a combination of brutal collective punishment, Russian air support, and Iran-backed foreign militiamen can result in regime gains even in opposition strongholds, the regime lacks sufficient resources to effectively protect lower-priority territory in the meantime. The Syrian security forces have a serious manpower problem, and efforts to gradually expand conscription over the course of the conflict have failed to solve it.
This presents a major challenge to Moscow and Tehran, which bear the burden of compensating for the regime’s weaknesses. Even with all their help, the regime lacks the means to defeat its armed opponents outright. What it can do, if Iran and Russia provide the requisite men and firepower, is continue to reduce the scope of territory controlled by the opposition. If Damascus prioritises areas held by non-jihadist factions, as it has often done before, this will further reduce their collective political weight. In the process, however, the regime and its allies will be expanding the zone of territory to which they must dedicate precious fighters to control, leaving themselves vulnerable to a strategy of asymmetric insurgency aimed at gradually grinding away at their will and capacity.

If Russia can press for a sustainable ceasefire that is supported by Turkey, accepted by Iran, and adhered to by the regime and non-jihadist rebels, the potential result would be an effective freezing of the conflict.

The pro-regime camp’s depopulation tactics employed against opposition-held areas can mitigate this threat to some extent, but probably not enough to render the costs and risks easily sustainable, given their own manpower constraints, Syria’s demographics, and the strength of the remaining insurgency.
This vulnerability to a long-term, potentially dangerous insurgency does not appear to factor deeply in regime or Iranian decision-making. Yet they are unable to gain significant territory in northern rebel strongholds without robust Russian support. For its part, Moscow has often appeared more concerned than its allies of the risk of regime overstretch and more willing to explore diplomatic paths with the U.S. and, most recently, Turkey.

If Russia can press for a sustainable ceasefire that is supported by Turkey, accepted by Iran, and adhered to by the regime and non-jihadist rebels, the potential result would be an effective freezing of the conflict. This would preserve remaining chunks of territory dominated by “revolutionary” rebels, but meanwhile set the stage for expanded confrontation with Fath al-Sham and fellow Salafi-jihadists. It would also cement the regime’s position of strength and minimise its risk of overstretch. 

It remains to be seen how these Astana talks will feed into the UN-backed Geneva process, with the next round of meetings due to begin on 8 February. But we remain a long way from addressing the underlying issues, let alone reaching a broader political settlement to end the conflict.

Residents escape Assad regime bombardment in Al Moyaser neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria on 29 November, 2016. ANADOLU AGENCY/Jawad al Rifai

What Comes After the Bloody Battle for Aleppo?

Despite the Syrian regime’s brutally effective campaign to recapture Aleppo, it cannot celebrate victory yet. In this Q&A, Senior Syria Analyst Noah Bonsey talks about the factors likely to fuel greater violence, increased radicalisation and more massive displacement. 

What are the immediate implications of the regime’s victory in Aleppo?

Aleppo illustrates the bleak state of the Syrian war, more than five years into the conflict. The regime and its allies are defeating rebel groups by employing an expanded version of their long-favoured military approach: massive collective punishment, including siege tactics and relentless bombardment targeting civilians. With crucial support from Russian air power and Iran-backed foreign fighters, this set of tactics has enabled the regime to compensate, for now at least, for its eroding military and limited base of reliable Syrian fighters. 

This approach has enabled the regime to achieve significant military and political gains at minimal cost to itself. The human suffering it creates is truly unimaginable, in both scale and intensity, particularly among civilians in opposition areas—as the images emerging from Aleppo remind us. But the regime and its allies are at best unconcerned with civilian casualties, and at worst appear intent on increasing them. They have multiple objectives: to push local civilians to pressure the fighters in their midst toward surrender; to signal to Syrians elsewhere the price of continued resistance; and to displace pro-opposition populations that might pose challenges to regime governance in the future. Meanwhile, the regime and its allies see clearly that the opposition’s backers and broader “international community” are unwilling or unable to take action to raise the price for this scorched-earth approach--despite all the bloodshed, displacement, and radicalization it generates. Given those incentives—high rewards, with minimal costs to themselves--it is no wonder that the regime, Russia, Iran and allied proxies have repeatedly employed this brutal strategy. It has worked around Damascus and Homs, it has now worked in Aleppo, and they will presumably seek to employ it again—perhaps next in Idlib, or in Eastern Ghouta [outside Damascus]. What we are seeing in Aleppo is not only an unfathomable human disaster unto itself, but also a preview of what is likely to come.  

This approach has enabled the regime to achieve significant military and political gains at minimal cost to itself.

What particular importance does Aleppo have within the Syria conflict?

The eastern half of Aleppo was arguably the opposition’s most valuable strategic holding, given the city’s size, economic weight, and proximity to the Turkish border. As the conflict has evolved, Aleppo city and portions of the adjacent countryside were also the part of the north where non-jihadi factions remained the dominant local forces, even as Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Fath al-Sham) asserted hegemony over much of neighbouring Idlib. Aleppo’s loss is a huge blow to the non-jihadi portion of the rebel spectrum, and thus to the opposition’s political ambitions in general. 

Regime strategy has long aimed to militarily cripple the non-jihadi opposition and render it politically irrelevant. Ever since 2014, Crisis Group has highlighted the importance of Aleppo, pointing out that the regime’s capture of the city would seriously jeopardize any remaining prospect for a negotiated end to the conflict and likely to strengthen jihadist groups. For any settlement to prove viable, you need a non-jihadi opposition that is sufficiently pragmatic to make a deal, and strong enough on the ground to implement it. The evisceration of non-jihadi factions in the north will increasingly play to the advantage of jihadists like Fath al-Sham. It will also offer new opportunities to the Islamic State (IS), which is widely despised by the rest of the rebellion but, as that rebellion loses momentum, may find openings to assert itself and even rebuild some credibility with the anti-regime base.

Where does the opposition go from here?

Aleppo reflects long-standing problems within the pro-opposition camp that weakened their ability to defend territory. Poor coordination and competing priorities among state backers have consistently undermined their Syrian allies. Recent months were no exception, with Saudi Arabia stuck in a quagmire in Yemen, Turkey caught in a trans-border struggle with Kurdish forces, and the U.S. focused on fighting IS while engaging in fruitless rounds of diplomacy with Moscow. 

That left the armed opposition more or less to their own devices in Aleppo, and they played a bad hand very poorly—succumbing to in-fighting at the worst possible moments, and undermining their own cause with indiscriminate shelling of regime-held western Aleppo. Rebels would have struggled to defend their territory in the city in any case, given the breadth and intensity of the pro-regime offensive, but it must be noted that the pro-opposition camp’s effort proved less than the sum of its parts. 

So what’s left for the opposition on the ground? They face a bleak map, where the most promising spot is northeast of Aleppo, where non-jihadi factions working directly with Turkish forces have recaptured from IS a large swath of territory along the border, and are now attempting to take the city of al-Bab, some 35 km east of Aleppo. Ankara charts the course for this joint effort, known as Euphrates Shield, which aims primarily to push IS from the Turkish border and block the Syria-based People’s Protection Units (YPG, Kurdish forces affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK) from connecting their territory east of the Euphrates river with the Afrin canton they control north of Aleppo. Participation in Euphrates Shield carries significant costs for the opposition: forces deployed there might otherwise have helped strengthen efforts to defend eastern Aleppo; and Ankara’s need to maintain Moscow’s goodwill, in order to prevent the interference of the Russian air force, constrained its ability to help rebels counter the pro-regime campaign there. Yet the benefits are also significant, as the operation’s gains have provided new space and relevance for non-jihadi opposition elements facing existential threats elsewhere in the north.

The northern province of Idlib has been much discussed as the next point of conflict in the north, can the opposition rally there? 

Efforts to evacuate civilians and fighters from Aleppo began today, after repeated delays, with convoys headed toward Idlib, the opposition’s remaining northwestern stronghold. The situation in Idlib is even more dynamic--and combustible. The pro-regime camp may seek to escalate there after Aleppo, applying similarly brutal tactics against cities and towns that remain crowded with civilians, including many displaced from elsewhere. Rebel control in the area is split primarily between Jabhat Fath al-Sham—a salafi-jihadist group that until recently maintained official links to al-Qaeda—and Ahrar al-Sham, a group incorporating a range of Islamists that has situated itself between Fath al-Sham and more mainstream factions on the rebel political and ideological spectrum. These are two of the rebellion’s strongest factions, and they will likely prove better situated to defend their ground than did their Aleppo counterparts. However, their unambiguously Islamist platforms and Fath al-Sham’s al-Qaeda ties may limit international outcry over the pro-regime camp’s attacks on areas under their control. This may be a moot point, given that international outcry has done little to restrain the regime and its allies elsewhere. Meanwhile, a long-standing ideological, political and personal rift between pragmatist and hardline camps within Ahrar al-Sham has recently deepened. A break between the two camps, should it occur, may prove healthy for the opposition in the medium to long term, but would likely further weaken their defensive capacity in the immediate future.

Does the opposition have any better hopes for a come-back in the south?

The opposition in southern Syria has won only mixed returns from compromise. Non-jihadi factions there continue to control significant swaths of territory, but an apparent understanding between Russia and Jordan, upon which rebels depend for supplies, has largely frozen that front for the time being, with occasional exceptions. This has offered some degree of respite for rebel-held areas there, but has also enabled the pro-regime camp to divert resources toward escalation against other opposition pockets—and in turn, by some accounts, lowered morale among southern rebels.

Elsewhere, armed opposition control is limited to isolated pockets—most notably the besieged Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, controlled primarily by non-jihadist factions and still home to a large civilian population. Reasserting its authority throughout the capital region is a long-standing regime priority, and the regime’s success in Aleppo would appear to raise the likelihood of a similarly devastating campaign for what is left of rebel-held Ghouta. 

In theory, to avoid the human and potential political toll of massive pro-regime offensives targeting Eastern Ghouta or parts of Idlib, non-jihadi factions and their state backers might be best served by jointly pursuing something akin to the non-aggression arrangement that has largely prevailed in the south. Also in theory, such an understanding could hold appeal for Russia—which has at times appeared wary of the regime’s limited capacity to hold regained territory and whose air support is crucial to enabling further regime offensives. Moscow’s concerns were underlined with the recent recapture of Palmyra by IS, just nine months after a Russian-backed military campaign had succeeded in expelling the group. In practice, however, there is little apparent appetite for a non-aggression arrangement within the fractious pro-opposition camp. And it is hard to imagine Russia—let alone the regime and Iran—choosing to halt their march against rebels now when they enjoy such momentum. Even if the rebels suffers continued territorial losses, that will not spell the end of the regime’s armed opponents. It will leave those wishing to continue the fight with little choice but to shift to a longer-term strategy of asymmetric insurgency—a scenario which plays further to the advantage of salafi-jihadis, and would make it still harder for the rebellion to cobble together a coherent, credible, and practical political leadership. 

Is the regime on its way to proving that there is a military solution to this conflict after all?

The regime has gone a long way toward dismantling its mainstream opponents inside the country, armed and civilian,—a long standing regime goal that blocks any viable path to a negotiated political transition in the foreseeable future. But despite current momentum, it is not rolling toward a full military victory. Crucial weaknesses within the pro-regime camp remain. Central among them is the erosion of the Syrian military, and the limited base from which the regime can draw reliable, dedicated Syrian fighters. To gain additional territory while maintaining what it has, the regime has steadily grown ever more dependent on Shiite foreign fighters facilitated by Iran – Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, Afghan and Pakistani recruits drawn from refugee communities in Iran. They, along with intense Russian air power, have been key to enabling continued regime gains. But in the medium to long term, they do not provide sustainable means of holding—let alone stabilizing—territory in populated anti-regime strongholds amid a continuing insurgency. 

It is unlikely that, absent real compromise, it will be able to use such brutal tactics to win the war outright.

Indeed, even in the short term, holding ground is a serious challenge. The IS recapture of Palmyra earlier this month illustrates this well. With its foreign allies and most reliable Syrian fighters focused on other fronts—most notably Aleppo—regime forces charged with holding Palmyra proved no match for a surprise attack by IS, losing the city within three days despite Russian air support. That regime collapse could happen so quickly in Palmyra—a world-famous heritage site and strategically important location, whose recapture in March was heralded in a major Russian propaganda effort—provides ample indication of its manpower problem. If and when pro-regime forces continue to gain additional territory, the risks they run of over-extending themselves only grow. 

Part of the challenge for the regime’s backers, including Iran, is that they are pushing against the grain of Syria’s demographics—across the country, and in the northwest in particular. This is a notable difference between Syria and Iraq, where Iran’s assertion of hegemony is eased by alliances with political and military forces rooted in—and recruited from—the country’s Shiite majority. In theory, the regime and its allies could attempt to overcome this challenge by expanding and intensifying their existing depopulation efforts in parts of the country where anti-regime sentiment is perceived as especially broad and deep. That would erase whatever line remains between scorched-earth counter-insurgency and systematic sectarian cleansing. It would also generate civilian casualties, displacement, and radicalisation still worse than the horrors Syria has already witnessed. Sadly, given the lengths to which the pro-regime camp has gone thus far, and the lack of any foreseeable external military deterrent, it cannot be ruled out. 

What is the relative strength of IS now? Despite its recapture of Palmyra, is the group not under threat in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa?

The Islamic State’s military fortunes have ebbed and flowed, even in the last couple of weeks, but overall it seems to be losing ground. Yet even if there are further military successes against the group, that alone won’t solve the problem.

A lot of the Western conversation on Syria focuses on specific groups – IS, Fatah al Sham. But that is misleading, and extremely counterproductive. As we have seen in Iraq over the years, even driving a jihadist group beyond the apparent brink of defeat will prove only a short-term success if the underlying conditions on which it fed remain, or re-emerge. Eliminating groups’ leadership is also no guarantee that jihadists are defeated:  three leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq were killed, only to be replaced by the current leader of IS. Groups will evolve as they lose ground, some may disappear and others will introduce themselves; they are symptoms rather than causes of deeper problems in Syria, Iraq and beyond.  Chief among those problems is the massive radicalising force generated by the brutal military tactics used by all armed elements in the country–but which have been carried out most extensively and systematically by the Syrian regime and its allies.

When we look at the levels of violence Syrians have experienced, and those, mostly Sunni, communities that have been the worst affected, it is clear that seizing territory from IS or any jihadist group will not in and of itself sustainably address the problem. The goal must be to secure stability and credible governance within these areas—meaning that questions of how a given city will be administered post-IS, and by whom, are more important than the speed with which IS is driven from that area.

The Islamic State’s military fortunes have ebbed and flowed, even in the last couple of weeks, but overall it seems to be losing ground.

There is a real danger, then, that the U.S. is making a mistake by rushing to arrange a campaign to take Raqqa city led, in practice if not in rhetoric, by Kurdish YPG forces. First, due to Ankara’s intense objection to additional YPG gains—and amid continued violence between Turkey and the PKK/YPG on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border—the momentary benefit of driving IS from the city might pale in comparison to the costs of spiralling destabilisation throughout this arc of tension. Second, due to the YPG’s approach to governance—delegating minimal responsibility to local bodies while clearly retaining more meaningful authorities in the hands of Kurdish YPG cadres—it is difficult to imagine the organisation achieving credible, sustainable governance in an overwhelmingly Arab city of Raqqa’s size. 

How are things shaping up for Turkey and its allies in the battle to take al-Bab from IS?  

As I noted earlier, Turkey and its rebel allies began Euphrates Shield with two immediate objectives: 1) capture from IS the territory adjacent to the Turkish border, and 2) block the YPG from connecting its territory in northeastern Syria with the Afrin canton it controls north of Aleppo. Thus far, Turkey has already accomplished the first goal and is on the verge of achieving the second—if and when it takes al-Bab, it will have nearly completely blocked the YPG’s path to control a single, contiguous stretch of territory. Notably, controlling al-Bab would also provide Turkey and its rebel partners a foothold in a significant population centre just 35 km from Aleppo city, and less than 10 km from the nearest regime-held territory—which explains why Damascus has repeatedly signalled its objection to Euphrates Shield advancing on the city. Thus the battle for al-Bab is between Turkey-backed rebels and IS, but the ramifications are much broader.

If and when Turkey and its Euphrates Shield allies succeed in taking al-Bab, however, there is a real risk that further escalation may ensue. Connecting its Afrin and northeastern cantons is the YPG’s top priority in Syria, and its officials have hinted that the organisation is prepared to respond forcibly to Turkish attempts to block that. Meanwhile, the Turkish leadership has publicly suggested that Euphrates Shield may build on victory in al-Bab with a march east toward Menbij, a city subject to dispute since the YPG and its local allies captured it from IS in August, taking in the process an initial step toward connecting its cantons. Turkey was unhappy with this development, and understood from the U.S. at the time that the YPG was to withdraw from Menbij after seizing it and hand control to local authorities. That did not happen – the YPG has withdrawn some of its assets but kept others, and in any case there is no shared definition between Turkey, the YPG and the U.S. on where the YPG ends and local authorities begin. (The issue is complicated by the PKK/YPG tactic of creating officially autonomous local bodies that in practice remain under the organization’s authority.)The bottom line is that it would benefit all these parties—Turkey, the YPG and U.S.—to pro-actively define a mutually acceptable arrangement in Menbij. If Turkey attempts to resolve the matter with a military push in that direction, it may over-stretch its Euphrates Shield forces in the process—presenting opportunities for IS, the YPG or even nearby regime forces to exploit. Moreover, it could ignite an escalatory cycle between Turkey and the PKK/YPG spanning both sides of the border. The same could result from any YPG escalation against Turkish and allied forces in al-Bab or elsewhere. Indeed, at this point the YPG would be well advised to accept that connecting its cantons via military means is not a realistic objective, and that any attempt toward that end might backfire by inciting an expanded Turkish response.

Given all these dangerous dynamics, what are the prospects for de-escalating the violence in Syria?
A first step would be for all actors to be more realistic about what they can accomplish militarily. Repeatedly, over the course of this war, decision-makers on all sides have overestimated what they can achieve and sustain—that is, maximalist objectives have made them all prone to overshooting. This was true of the pro-opposition camp when it had momentum earlier in the conflict, and it’s true of the pro-regime camp now that it enjoys momentum. The regime has won the battle for Aleppo, but at a cost of immense destruction, international isolation, and horrendous civilian suffering. It is unlikely that, absent real compromise, it will be able to use such brutal tactics to win the war outright.  

One would hope that by being more realistic, the conflict’s protagonists could avoid mutually damaging fights; that principle applies not only to Menbij and al-Bab, but also to Idlib—the pro-regime camp is itself in danger of over-stretch. 

The recent flurry of Turkey-Russia diplomacy shows the potential for each to achieve better results—for themselves and their allies—via negotiating a non-aggression arrangement that would avert an all-out war for Idlib, or elsewhere. Agreement between Turkey and Russia is not sufficient, of course—as we saw yesterday in Aleppo, when Iran-backed militias appeared to thwart an evacuation deal facilitated by Ankara and Moscow.  But diplomacy between the two can provide a promising start. 

That said, the obstacles to such a deal are immense:  the regime and Iran have consistently preferred immediate military escalation to Russian negotiation efforts; Moscow itself appears content to press the pro-regime camp’s current military advantage; Fath al-Sham dominates much of Idlib, prefers that the rebels remain on the offensive, and would likely seek to thwart any non-aggression arrangement; and there are limits to Turkey’s will and capacity to pro-actively push its rebel allies on an issue that for Ankara pales in importance to the challenges presented by the PKK and YPG.

At this point, de-escalation seems like wishful thinking, but it is achievable if the major powers involved in this fight are willing to step back and recalibrate based on their longer-term interests. Going forward, the three most critical external actors are likely to be Russia, Turkey and Iran—especially now that the next U.S. administration seems inclined to limit its engagement on Syria. Crisis Group is planning to address these dynamics in a forthcoming report.

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