February 20, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Assad Makes Major Moves

• The Assad regime is making significant strategic moves in the north and south of the country that will profoundly impact not just the anti-regime rebels but the countries supporting them

• With significant on-the-ground help from Hizballah and Iran, the regime is attempting to cut off a critical supply route that runs from the northwest of Aleppo to Turkey, not only denying the rebels of supplies but also depriving Turkey of its desired northern buffer zone

• In the south, Hizballah is making good on its intentions to extend its fight with Israel from southern Lebanon to the Golan Heights, while Assad’s goal is to further fracture the southern rebel groups and to bolster Damascus’ defense to the south

• The timing is not coincidental; the Syrian regime is getting ready for the expected increase of fighting in the spring, and to alter the facts on the ground before any proposed Aleppo-focused ceasefire takes effect.

The Syrian civil war approaches its fifth year with the regime in better shape than last year. The Syrian military’s recent moves will have repercussions far beyond the towns and villages involved in the fighting. As talks continue for a cease-fire in the long-besieged city of Aleppo and efforts to train and arm Syrian rebel groups intensify, the Assad regime is looking to bolster its prospects before the expected increase of fighting in the spring. The Syrian regime’s moves can be understood as a north and a south push against divided foes, with Hizballah and Iran providing critical on-the-ground-support to the government in both arenas.

In the north, the Syrian army is trying to encircle the all-important city of Aleppo, moving against rebel positions to the north and northwest. The rebels depend on the ‘international road’ that runs from northwestern Aleppo to the Turkish border, through which they receive supplies. Yet it is more than cutting off the rebels’ supplies that has the Syrian regime determined to move quickly in the area; Turkey has long wanted that area to be a designated buffer-zone, off-limits to Syrian air power. By taking physical control of the area north of Aleppo, the issue is moot, and deprives the Syrian regime’s hated neighbor to the north of a needed victory. Furthermore, UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura recently told the UN of the possibility for a six-week ceasefire inside Aleppo. While the prospects for the ceasefire are uncertain (after all, groups such as the Islamic State and Nusra Front aren’t going to abide by any ceasefire), the government would be more than happy to agree to a ceasefire if it controlled more of the surrounding area. The announcement that Turkey and the U.S. have finally signed an agreement train Syrian rebels in Turkey (with the U.S. saying the rebels will fight against the Islamic State and Turkey saying they will fight Assad), adds more pressure for the Syrian government to press harder.

Throughout the recent fierce fighting around Aleppo, Hizballah and Iran have provided critical support, with the former delivering fighters and the latter providing ‘advisors.’ The combination of Syrian regime, Iranian, and Hizballah forces is especially effective given that the rebel opposition remains ever fractured and riven with rivalries. The rebels also must fight against the Islamic State, which remains a threat even as its momentum has slowed in the area.

In the south, Syrian forces are moving hard against rebel forces to the south of Damascus in an effort to ease the rebel threat to the capital—a threat that had been growing over the last six months as the rebels gained more ground to the south. Army forces captured the towns of Deir Maker and Deir al-Ada, and show no sign of backing off in their offensive. At the same time, the Assad regime is moving to regain power in the strategic Golan Heights, having lost control of the area to rebel forces last year. Here, the motivations and capabilities of Hizballah and Iran to open a new front against Israel is as important as Assad’s need to reduce pressure on the capital. Before and after January’s Israeli missile attack in the Golan Heights that killed Hizballah fighters as well as a brigadier general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hizballah has expressed its intention to play a major role in the Golan Heights, in effect creating one long battle front with Israel from southern Lebanon to the Golan. By taking the lead against rebel forces in the area around Quneitra and Dara’, the group is achieving that goal.

Even for a conflict that has seen so many ‘critical moments’ or ‘tipping points’ over the past four years, the coming months might be determinative in shaping longer-term efforts at ending the war and rebuilding the country and society. The Assad regime’s moves in the north and south, with help from Iran and Hizballah, are aimed at tilting the board in favor of the regime before the arrival of better-trained rebels.


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