August 8, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Pendulum Swings in Syria
The five-year-old Syrian civil war has seen numerous turning points, yet each has failed to provide any lasting forward progress towards ending the conflict. Events hailed as game-changers or war-enders have consistently proven to be otherwise. On August 6, a rebel alliance announced it had broken a month-long Assad regime siege of Aleppo. The offensive to break the siege was one of the largest coordinated rebel campaigns of the war to date, and blunts the recent momentum of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
This is just the latest development in a multi-year swing of momentum. Taken in isolation, each turning point in the war is significant; the breaking of the siege in Aleppo—the second largest city in Syria—is no small feat, and averts an even larger humanitarian crisis on top of the already dire humanitarian situation in Syria. Throughout the conflict, all sides have seen tactical gains at various points. Indeed, the ‘back-and-forth’ of tactical victories and defeats for each party is precisely what has allowed the war to persist. Even at the lowest points for both the rebels and the regime, a decisive strategic defeat was never likely. The recent and ongoing increase of foreign support for both sides has only added to that unlikelihood.
The rebel alliance, called Jaysh al-Fateh or ‘Army of Conquest,’ includes the group formally known as Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Despite its rebranding attempt, al-Nusra—now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—remains ideologically wedded to the goals of al-Qaeda, even as it remains a large part of the rebel fighting capability. The intermingling of extremist and rebel groups has only intensified over the last year. As the fighting worsens in the wake of the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, the extremist elements of the rebel alliance—who have gained traction amongst the rebels precisely because of their military prowess—will continue to play a leading role. While the lone point of agreement between the U.S. and Russia in Syria is the targeting of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the so-called Islamic State, any U.S.-Russian collaboration in striking extremist groups will continue to be complicated by the increased blending of rebels and extremists.
The rebel alliance will now try to push into western Aleppo, which is held by the government. In a densely populated urban environment, the Russian-Syrian airpower advantage is muted, though neither has shown much restraint in terms of avoiding civilian casualties. The Assad regime is in bad shape militarily and continues to rely heavily on Iranian and Hizballah forces, along with Russian air support. Still, as in previous years, predictions of any near-term regime collapse will likely prove wrong, setting the stage for more momentum swings and incremental negotiations.
The repeated swings in momentum have ensured that no round of talks has ever produced much; each side at various times sees itself as winning, and views the talks as a conspiracy to block its inevitable victory. The rebel gains in Aleppo are undeniable and significant, and could possibly trigger some negotiated resolution to the civil war. They could also lead to a period of increased fighting and suffering, followed by increased foreign support and swings of momentum, as has every other turning point up to now. Russia’s response to the latest setback for the Assad regime will go a long way in determining if this turning point will be a true strategic shift in the conflict, or just the latest in the seemingly never-ending series of tactical shifts.
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