April 21, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Collapse of Syria’s Ceasefire?
Since the April 18 announcement by the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) that it was postponing further participation in peace talks, the cessation of hostilities in Syria, which has ostensibly held since February 27, has effectively collapsed. In walking away from the UN-sponsored negotiations, the HNC cited weeks-long mobilization efforts on the part of the Assad regime and its allies in preparation for an offensive to retake the vital rebel-held city of Aleppo. The announcement brought a resurgence of fighting across northeast and central parts of the country; rebels launched their own counteroffensive in response to increased government airstrikes and the build-up around Aleppo. In a particularly symbolic illustration of what is likely to continue, Syrian government aircraft launched a strike against a crowded market in the rebel-held town Maarat al-Noaman in Idlib province on April 19. The attack reportedly killed around 40 people—including civilians—in a town that had recently received international attention for holding peaceful demonstrations against not only the Assad regime, but also Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence in the town.
The Assad regime reenters the fighting as the unquestioned winner of the tenuous cessation in hostilities. The lull in violence allowed Assad’s forces and allies to temporarily refocus efforts towards combating the so-called Islamic State, with some significant success. Assad’s ability to retake territory controlled by the Islamic State in Palmyra and surrounding areas demonstrated to members of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition the effectiveness of the regime’s ability to counter the Islamic State—thus providing Assad some level of increased international legitimacy.
Furthermore, under the pretense of fighting the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra—both excluded from the ceasefire agreement—loyalist forces conducted airstrikes and tactical mobilizations to better position for assaults against rebel-held territory across the country. Syrian government forces—which suffer from a large shortage of manpower—owe their success almost entirely to the significant role played by allies in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods force (IRGC), Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, Lebanese Hizballah, and Russian forces. The exponential force multiplier effect these various regime allies provide effectively removes any incentive the Syrian government may have to engage in meaningful negotiations with the opposition in Geneva. So long as Iran and Russia continue to empower the Assad regime through direct military support, any efforts at genuine reconciliation will be frivolous.
A successful regime offensive against Aleppo would deal a major blow to opposition forces, as Aleppo has long been viewed as a decisive arena in determining the outcome of the conflict. In addition to its symbolic importance as the one-time industrial, financial, and cultural hub of Syria, Aleppo is of vital strategic importance due to its position on key rebel supply routes between Turkey and Iblib and Hama provinces. But arguably more significant for Western-backed Syrian rebel groups is how the dynamics have changed for the Western members of the anti-Islamic State coalition since the beginning of the ceasefire. The March 22 terrorist attacks in Brussels have drastically increased the urgency felt amongst Western leaders to make significant gains against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. While the resumption of heavy government bombardment against civilian-populated rebel-controlled territory will propel all rebel focus towards Assad, the U.S.-led coalition’s focus will undoubtedly remain on the Islamic State. Despite instances of displayed frustration towards extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra during the ceasefire, as the fight against the Assad regime becomes more desperate, moderate rebel groups may be pushed towards further cooperation with battle-hardened and militarily effective extremist groups.
While hostilities never entirely ceased in Syria between February 27 and April 18, the considerable reduction in violence between loyalist forces and the main opposition groups allowed both sides to come to the table in Geneva. Yet the emboldened regime’s outright refusal to discuss a political transition that did not include Assad, coupled with the HNC’s steadfast insistence that Assad must go, led to a diplomatic stalemate that ultimately made the resurgence of violence inevitable. The international community will need to do everything in its power to keep peace negotiations alive. Representatives from both the Syrian government and the HNC are still in Geneva, though no talks are taking place. A total breakdown of diplomatic negotiations does not just mean the fighting in Syria will continue. It means the increasingly fragile EU-Turkey migrant deal will become even more tenuous as more refugees desperately flee the conflict. It also means that any lasting victory over the Islamic State is even further from reach, as continued conflict provides the group with the ideal conditions to persist.
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