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Syria’s Balance of Terror

LONDON – As the civil war in Syria nears the six-year mark, the mounting death toll and constantly shifting military landscape is making a mockery of the diplomatic track. With yet another round of talks on the horizon – new United Nations-led discussions are scheduled to begin this week in Geneva – it’s worth asking why the conflict has been so intractable.

Syria’s violence might have ended years ago had it not been for meddling by some of the very players now pushing hardest for a truce. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, conceded as much when he said in January that Damascus was 2-3 weeks from falling before Moscow intervened. Had rebels taken the Syrian capital, one of their key demands – the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad – would very likely have been met.

But it was not to be. Unlike in Libya, where French-led NATO action saved the revolution in March 2011, Iranian and Russian interventions in Syria – bolstered by armed non-state actors (both Sunni and Shia) from Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – have saved the government.

That said, Assad’s army – which had 325,000 soldiers in 2010 – has suffered more than 100,000 fatalities, a similar number of injuries, and tens of thousands of defections. By relying on some 110,000 foreign state and non-state actors to maintain a hold on the small portion of Syria that he still controls, Assad’s regime is much like his military: a shadow of what it once was.

And yet, for all of Assad’s diminished capacity, six years of brutal fighting has left the rebels little to show for their efforts. Most of what was sought in March 2011 – from Assad’s removal to democratic reforms and civic equality regardless of ethnicity, region, or sect – remains aspirational.

Anti-Assad forces came close to a military victory on several occasions over the last six years. The first time was in July 2012, when fighters stormed Damascus and attacked the National Security headquarters, killing Assad’s top commanders, including the defense minister, the deputy defense minister, and the head of the National Security Bureau.

This was followed by rebel advances in the northwest of the country, primarily into Aleppo, Homs, and Idlib. But these gains were rolled back in late 2012 and early 2013, with the intervention of Hezbollah and other foreign-backed non-state actors.

Forces loyal to Assad were again pushed to the brink in July 2015, when opposition forces advanced on the regime’s coastal strongholds, specifically the port city of Latakia. Two months later, opposition units from Duma and Ghouta were close to cutting off Assad’s forces in Damascus from the north of the country, by controlling strategic hills and paralyzing the M5 motorway. But a Russian aerial bombardment rolled back these advances, too.

The absence of sustained military momentum by any side has led to a dizzying mix of new security realities and strategic demands (from the implementation of Sharia law in opposition-held areas to predictions of regional secession). By the end of 2016, five major coalitions with conflicting objectives had emerged: Assad’s forces and their allies; Arab-led opposition forces; Kurdish-led opposition forces; Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, formerly the al-Nusra Front, which was the official arm of al-Qaeda in Syria); and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

Defections, realignments, and infighting have occurred within and among all five coalitions, including reported sparring between pro-Assad militias and among ISIS units. A December Turkish-Russian ceasefire plan, and the Astana negotiation process that kicked off last month in the Kazakh capital, fueled more infighting between Arab-led opposition forces and JFS, especially in the overpopulated and relentlessly bombarded opposition stronghold of Idlib.

In response to the Astana process, JFS recently dissolved itself and merged with four other local northern-based organizations: the al-Zenki Movement, the Truth Brigade, the Army of al-Sunnah, and the Supporters of the Religion Front. The new coalition, the Organization for the Liberation of the Levant (HTS), also attracted factions from its main rival, Ahrar al-Sham. An estimated quarter of the Ahrar forces in the north, including their commander, Hashim al-Sheikh, defected to HTS, which al-Sheikh currently commands.

At the same time, five smaller armed organizations – the most important being the Hawks of the Levant, the Army of Islam-Idlib Sector, and the Levantine Front – joined the Ahrar to avoid being absorbed by HTS. The current Ahrar commander, Ali al-Omar, heads this new coalition.

These realignments reflect survival tactics more than ideological affinity. Mergers with other organizations are viewed as a way to lessen the risk of eradication by drone strikes or ground attacks from rival forces. Whereas Ahrar and other armed opposition groups accept the dual tracks of diplomatic and military action, HTS will continue to rally all factions and organizations that reject the diplomatic track and fear Ahrar’s domination of the northwest. The ceasefire between these two coalitions, sustained by the balance of terror, by no means signals the end of the infighting.

The weaknesses, splits, and fatigue of all local forces (both remnants of the regime and the opposition factions) may give regional powers like Russia, Turkey, and Iran more leverage in pushing for a sustainable ceasefire in Syria. But I am skeptical. In a war with endlessly shifting priorities, conflicting aims, few credible commitments, and plenty of foreign meddling, any ceasefire today is just as likely to be broken by violence tomorrow.