April 28, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Rebel Advances in Syria

• Rebel forces in Syria are on a roll, helped by patchwork alliances based on pragmatism rather than ideology

• The Assad heartlands in Latakia are under threat; so too are government positions in the east and south of the country

• Rebel advances could reflect a growing weakness of manpower and resolve in the regime, but will also owe something to the Sunni alliance between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar

• In the short term there will be more refugees and displaced persons; in the longer term this could lead to more regional instability, unless a plan for Syria’s future is put in place.


Wars tend to ebb and flow before their ultimate direction becomes apparent, but there seems to be a new impetus and cohesion to the rebel forces fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The capture of Idlib, an important provincial capital in the north of the country in late March was followed in the weekend by the capture of another strategic town in the same province, Jisr al-Shughur. Jisr al-Shughur lies on the road to the coast and if the rebels can consolidate their gains, they will be well placed to attack the Alawite heartlands in the neighboring province of Latakia. Some clashes have already occurred there, including one on the Turkish border that killed a cousin of Assad.

At the same time, the rebels are pushing down towards Hama and renewing pressure around Homs, the two main strategic centers in the country after Damascus and Aleppo. In addition, the rebels have managed to recapture and hold onto Dara’a on the southern border with Jordan, where the uprising began in March 2011, and at the same time the Islamic State has begun to threaten Hasakah, a provincial city in the northeast.

The rebel offensives in Idlib and the south have been led by the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, but they have owed some of their success to alliances forged with other, smaller groups that have played down ideological differences, insofar as they exist, in favor of a focus on common objectives. This has been a repeating pattern of late and must owe something to external forces as well as to the blindingly obvious fact that the Assad regime has been the main beneficiary of the endless internecine strife between rebel groups. The Idlib model, known as Jaish al-Fateh (Army of Conquest), forged in March, was the first—and so far the most successful—of these alliances. It manufactured its own logo and Twitter feed, as well as its own operations room, thus providing important public symbols to suggest that it was not just a front for al-Nusra. Nonetheless, Salafist extremist groups dominate these alliances, and they accord therefore with the al-Qaeda tactic of focusing more on objectives than on affiliation.

Apart from the influence of al-Qaeda, another and perhaps more important spur to rebel unity may be the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. The Saudi Arabian venture against the Houthis in Yemen has reinforced the sense in the Middle East that the Arab States, with their vast arsenals, need not stand by while others make all the decisions about their region. With Iran forced to act carefully while the nuclear negotiations continue, and the United Nations Security Council still divided, it is a good time for King Salman’s Sunni alliance to flex its muscles, or at least prove that it has some. Although it was not able to find consensus over Yemen, Syria is an easier sell.

At the same time, the Assad regime is passing through a difficult time. The army has been suffering since December from a high rate of casualties, desertions, and draft dodging. And although some Iraqi Shi’a militias have returned to Damascus, there are fewer foreign troops fighting on the side of the regime than there were throughout most of last year. Even if more reinforcements arrive from Hizballah and Iran, they can only ever support the Syrian army, not take over from it. The regime has also shown internal tensions, with violent clashes between senior officials and rumors of attempted coups. Perceptions of resilience are almost as important as the real thing during an insurgency, and in the propaganda war, Assad is slipping behind. Announcements of major government victories seem to be increasingly closer to Damascus.

It is too early to start talking of Assad’s demise, but it remains worth discussing what might follow if he does fall. Attacks in the west of the country will create many more displaced people and refugees, causing further instability in the region, not least in Lebanon. Turkey will not want this, nor will Iran, and neither will benefit from a patchwork of rebel alliances dominated by extremists. Syria needs a plan.


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