Is Assad's Russian-backed Offensive a Game-changer in Syria?
by Jonathan Spyer
The Jerusalem Post
February 5, 2016http://www.meforum.org/5834/syria-talks
Originally published under the title "Precarious Syria Talks Leave Its Future Uncertain."
The failure of the peace talks was foreseen by most serious analysts on Syria. UN Special Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura this week announced the suspension of just-convened peace talks in Geneva intended to resolve the Syrian civil war. The failure of the talks was predictable and foreseen by most serious analysts on Syria. Diplomacy requires compromise. But the forces of President Bashar Assad, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are advancing in both northern and southern Syria.
The dictator and his allies, as a consequence, see no reason to abandon their core aims or accept a political process leading to a transition of power.
The action of consequence with regard to Syria is taking place on the battlefields of Aleppo, Idlib, Deraa and Quneitra provinces, not in the conference rooms of Geneva and Vienna.
The aim of the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies at present appears to be to destroy the non-Islamic State Sunni Arab rebellion against Assad. This would have the consequence of leaving only three effective protagonists in the war in Syria – Assad, Islamic State and the Kurds in the north.
Russia hopes to lure Syrian Kurds away from their alliance with the US.
Moscow is engaged at the moment in the energetic courting of the Kurds. Should Russia, after defeating the non-Islamic State rebels, succeed in tempting the Syrian Kurds away from their current alliance with the US, this would leave Moscow the effective master of the universally approved war against Islamic State in Syria.
Assad, who was facing possible defeat prior to the Russian intervention in September 2015, would be entirely dependent on Moscow and to a lesser extent Tehran for his survival. This would make the Russians and Iranians the decisive element in Syria's future.
The defeat of the non-Islamic State Sunni Arab rebellion is the first stage in this strategy. The main regime and Russian efforts are currently directed toward the remaining heartland of the rebellion in northwest Syria. But Assad and his allies also appear intent on delivering a death blow to the revolt in the place it was born – Deraa province in the south and its environs. This, incidentally, if achieved in its entirety, would bring Hezbollah and Iran to the area east of Quneitra crossing, facing the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights. It is not by any means certain that the regime will achieve this aim in total. But as of now, Assad and his friends are moving forward.
The first stage following the Russian intervention, and achieved in the dying months of 2015, was to end the rebel threat to the regime enclave in Latakia province. There is no further prospect of the rebels finding their way into the populated areas of this province. The regime has recaptured 35 villages in the northern Latakia countryside.
This achieved, the main fulcrum of the current effort is Aleppo province. Aleppo is the capital of Syria's north. The rebellion's arrival in this city in the late summer of 2012 signaled the point at which it first began to pose a real threat to Assad.
This week, the regime, its Iran-mustered Shi'a militia supporters and Russian air power succeeded in breaking the link between the border town of Azaz and rebel-held eastern Aleppo. This reporter traveled these rebel supply routes from the border when they were first carved out in 2012. They were vital to the maintenance of the rebellion's positions in Aleppo. There is a single link remaining between Turkey and eastern Aleppo – via Idlib province.
The direction of the war is currently in the regime's favor. But the rebel situation is rapidly deteriorating. The regime also broke a two-year siege on two Shi'ite towns, Nubul and Zahra.
The rebels rushed all available personnel and resources to defend these supply routes. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida branch in Syria, sent a convoy of 750 fighters to the area. This proved insufficient.
Further south, a recent regime offensive in Deraa province led to the recapture of the town of Sheikh Maskin, which again cuts the rebels off from key supply lines in a province they once dominated.
So the direction of the war is currently in the regime's favor. This is due to the Russian air intervention and to Iran's provision of ground fighters from a variety of regional populations aligned with it. The pattern of events on the ground had a predictable effect on the diplomacy in Geneva.
Any attempt by the regime to claw back the entirety of Syria will lead to overstretch.
All this does not, however, necessarily presage imminent and comprehensive regime and Russian success on the ground. Syrian opposition sources note that the pendulum of the war has swung back and forth many times in the course of the last four years. They hope that fresh efforts from Ankara, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will help to stem regime gains in the weeks ahead.
Perhaps more fundamentally, any attempt by the regime to claw back the entirety of Sunni Arab majority areas or Kurdish majority areas of Syria would lead to the same situation the regime faced in 2012 – namely, overstretch and insufficient forces to effectively hold areas conquered. But as of now, thanks to the Russian intervention, prospects for rebel victory have been averted and the Assad regime, with its allies, is on the march once more.
Comprehensive eclipse for the non-Islamic State Sunni Arab rebel groups is no longer an impossibility somewhere down the line. This reality at present precludes progress toward a diplomatic solution.
As an old Russian proverb has it: When the guns roar, the muses are silent.