No Truce in Syria
By Nayyer Ali MD
A “cessation of hostilities” agreement negotiated by outside powers, primarily the US and Russia, was supposedly agreed to and meant to take effect this week in Syria. So is this the end of the Syrian Civil War? No chance. In fact, the war is going to go on with escalating intensity, and surprisingly, with Assad and Russia driving towards victory.
The Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011 as the Arab Spring washed over the country triggering peaceful protests that were met with brutal violence, torture, and mass shootings meant to crush the rebellion. But Assad was not able to win at the outset, and the peaceful protestors morphed into an armed rebellion. Over the next four years, the battles shifted, with Assad holding a core stretching from Damascus north to Homs and then to the coastal region where the Alawite minority, the sect that Assad belongs to, mostly resides. The rebels seized much of the land south of Damascus to the Jordan border, the northern regions next to Turkey, and captured half of the critical city of Aleppo. But the rebels were divided into hundreds of small militias, and dependent on weapons from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. They were never able to secure anti-aircraft missiles, because of fear that those could be seized by terror groups and used against civilian airliners in the West.
Over time, two rebel groups became the strongest forces. In the northwest, it was JN (Nusra Front), who were openly tied to Al-Qaeda and put on the UNSC list of terror groups. And in the east, a new force, originating among Iraqi Sunnis, seized Raqaa and most of eastern Syria along with the Sunni regions of Iraq. This group, known as Daesh or ISIS, is also a designated terrorist group, and went about trying to set up a “caliphate” while engaging in terror acts such as the Paris massacre, the bombing of the Russian passenger jet out of Sinai, and even creating an outpost of control in the Libyan town of Sirte.
For the last few years I have held the view that eventually Assad was going to lose. While he had a heavy advantage in firepower such as artillery, tanks, and aircraft, he also suffered critical shortages of manpower. Ongoing monthly casualties could not be sustained forever, and his military would eventually collapse, as it rested mostly on the 20% of Syrians who were Alawites, as no one else really wanted to fight for the regime.
By early 2015, it looked like this scenario was beginning to appear. Rebels made major gains in the north, and Assad had to retreat from Palmyra in the east and allow ISIS to seize the ancient town. Morale was crumbling.
It was at this point that foreign intervention came to save Assad. Putin dispatched two squadrons of fighter-bombers to give heavy air support, while Iran brought in volunteers to fight for Assad, including Shia from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and most importantly, very competent units from Hezbollah in Lebanon. These reinforcements, and the pounding of Russian aircraft, have pushed the rebels back on their heels. Assad is closing in on surrounding Aleppo, and the fall of Aleppo would cripple the so-called “moderate rebels”.
It is in this context that the cease-fire talks have taken place. The actual agreement does not end fighting in Syria. It asks that the Syrian government and the designated “moderate” rebels cease hostilities for the present time, with the hope of a political resolution then being pursued. But there is no cease-fire with JN or ISIS. What this does is give Assad and Russia a chance to now destroy JN in the northeast, and to go after ISIS in the east. The capture of Raqaa alone would be enough to collapse ISIS in Syria. This is where the fighting will concentrate if the cease-fire holds elsewhere.
In a few months though, Assad will have seized back much of Syria, and the rebels would be standing alone against Assad, without JN and ISIS in the fight. At that point, any negotiation would really be a dictation of terms by Assad. The rebels would be in a very weak position to negotiate the end of Assad’s dictatorship. In my view, it looks like Assad will win his civil war.
If Assad wins what will it mean for Syria? For those heavily involved in the rebellion, they will have to seek a life in exile, Syria will be too dangerous. For the 10 million displaced Syrians, it will mean a chance to return to their shattered cities and homes and start the process of rebuilding. For Assad, it means his system survives for the foreseeable future. Just as in Egypt, it will have come full circle. The one exception will be the Syrian Kurds. They have carved out a large strip along the north of Syria that they control, but they have not taken sides in the civil war and have not attacked regime forces. It is likely that they will be the only “winner” as they will get to keep a new semi-autonomous status.
The Syrian refugee crisis may also come to an overall end. Out of 20 million Syrians, 10 million have been displaced from their homes. 7 million moved elsewhere within Syria. 3 million reached refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. And of those, in the last year, about 200,000 have set off to enter Europe. The Europeans are struggling over who should take in this influx and provide the help needed to get them on their feet. But the European influx is still only 2% of the total refugees, and the 10,000 that Obama has offered to take in is a mere drop in the ocean.
Some critics have asked why the US should shoulder the burden of defeating ISIS in this whole mess, rather than the military forces in the region. It certainly is logical that it is the Syrian government that should destroy ISIS in Syria, and the Iraqi government should do the same in Iraq. But the ground realities are quite different. In the multiplayer Syrian civil war, the government wants to primarily destroy the moderate opposition, and is willing to leave ISIS for later. The Turks and Saudis want to focus on defeating Assad, and leave ISIS for late too. The Kurds are interested in creating self-governing regions in Syria and Iraq, but do not want to get entangled with fights with others outside their own regions. The US wants to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but doesn’t want to use its own ground forces, and does not want Iraq’s Shia militias closely tied to Iran to do the fighting. The US instead wants the Iraqi army, which collapsed last year when ISIS overran much of northeastern Iraq, to be rebuilt and to do the fighting. This takes a lot of time.
Within a year though, we could see ISIS defeated in both Syria and Iraq, and Syria’s war begin to wind down in favor of Assad. The intervention by Russia and Iran, along with other Shia fighting men, has turned the tide.