April 6, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Assad’s Fight for Leverage in Syria
As the increasingly fragile ceasefire in Syria continues to hold, the so-called Islamic State continues to face mounting pressure. On April 3, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad successfully drove Islamic State militants out of the town of al-Quryatain—which the group had held since August 2015—continuing the regime’s offensive against the Islamic State around the historically significant town of Palmyra. As with its victory in Palmyra, the Syrian army benefited from substantial direct military support from Russian forces—both in the air and on the ground—as well Lebanese Hizballah, Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) advisors. The Assad regime and its allies will almost certainly look to build upon the momentum, and will likely push eastward to link up with loyalist forces assaulting Islamic State-held positions in the Deir al-Zour governorate.
While the cessation in hostilities in Syria—which has more or less held since February 27—has been a net benefit for all the actors party to the agreement, the Assad regime will likely walk away as one of the biggest winners from the ceasefire. Though the ceasefire is intended to be the first step in a long-term peace process, the truce between the Syrian government and the rebel coalition—represented by the High Negotiations Committee (HNC)—has allowed the Syrian army to shift a significant amount of resources and attention to the Islamic State, which is excluded from the truce, along with al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. By diverting its primary efforts away from moderate rebel groups and towards the Islamic State, the Assad regime—with the help of its allies—has sculpted a position for itself as an increasingly effective, yet uncomfortable, bedfellow with the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition. With each successful operation against Islamic State-held territory, the Assad regime compels the international community to afford it more legitimacy.
While the ouster of Assad has long been—at least publicly—a non-starter for the Russians and Iranians, the regime’s recent military victories against the Islamic State fundamentally alter Assad’s position at the negotiating table, providing the Syrian government with far greater bargaining power. Assad will likely use the momentum against the Islamic State as leverage to attempt to persuade the U.S.-led coalition to treat the Syrian government as a partner against the Islamic State—which has already been evidenced in the Russian invitation for the U.S. coalition to participate in mine-clearing efforts in Palmyra. The United States' relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as with numerous U.S.-supported Syrian rebel groups—all of whom staunchly oppose Assad—make it unlikely the U.S. will ever view Assad as a legitimate partner. However, the Assad regime’s continued success against the Islamic State—coupled with the increasing urgency to counter the unprecedented terror threat the group poses in Europe—make the notion of tacit cooperation with Assad somewhat more plausible.
Given that the defeat of the Islamic State is the overarching goal of the U.S.-led coalition, continued success against the group will only further serve to entrench Assad’s position in the future of Syria—regardless of whether the U.S.-led coalition directly coordinates efforts to combat the Islamic State with Assad or not. As it becomes increasingly likely that the removal of Assad will ultimately remain an impasse in peace negotiations, the solidification of Assad’s position threatens to undermine the possibility of any lasting peace. While some members of the U.S.-led coalition may be willing to acquiesce to the survival of the Assad regime if it leads to the defeat of the Islamic State, the disparate rebel groups represented by the HNC will not accept an outcome to the conflict that maintains the status quo; Assad is the very reason the rebels took up arms in the first place.
Bashar al-Assad’s brutal and authoritarian regime was the primary factor in the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, and the narrative of Sunni oppression under Assad’s totalitarian rule provides one of the greatest justifications for the presence of extremist groups in Syria. Foreign recruits to the Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria routinely cite Assad’s atrocities as the primary motivation for traveling to join the conflict. Even as Assad’s forces made headway against the Islamic State, the regime continued to demonstrate its callous indifference to the suffering of Syrian civilians. On March 31, at least 23 people—including four children—were reportedly killed in Syrian government airstrikes against the rebel-held town of Deir al-Asafir, a suburb of Damascus. Regardless of the Islamic State’s ultimate fate in Syria, Assad’s enduring presence in the country will ensure that the factors that make Syria a breeding ground for extremism will also endure.
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