TSG IntelBrief: Assad’s Military Momentum
February 3, 2016
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Recent attacks by the Assad regime appear intended to challenge talks on Syria in Geneva by forcing the rebels to walk out
• The rebels are more united and better represented than at previous rounds of talks, despite being weaker on the ground
• Although the talks will lead to little change on the ground, they could represent political progress
• Assad and his backers may see advantages to staying engaged in the talks as military advances elsewhere allow a push against the Islamic State.
On February 2, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air support, continued a major push to cut rebel supply lines north of Aleppo. On top of recent successes against the rebels elsewhere, it appears that President Assad is determined to maintain military momentum even while peace talks stutter along in Geneva. In fact, given the opposition demand for a ceasefire against civilians—as called for by Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) adopted in mid-December—Assad’s actions appear calculated to bring the peace talks to a halt.
This is understandable for Assad, but unfortunate for Syria. Opposition groups have come a long way towards agreeing to a common position since the last attempt to hold talks in early 2014, and their representatives are far more likely to be able to implement an agreement now. The previous talks suffered from a disconnect between the political opposition around the table and the fighters on the ground, as well as from disagreements surrounding objectives. Efforts by Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia—aided by the United States—have brought the majority of rebel groups together as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). And although the alliance is fragile—and the extent to which it also represents Ahrar al-Sham, a key element of the opposition, remains unclear—the HNC has more credibility than any opposition alliance that has emerged previously.
The so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) are expressly excluded from the HNC, as they are from the peace talks. Ahrar al-Sham, though a deeply conservative Islamist group that was originally seen as a sister organization to JaN, has steadily distanced itself from the global aspirations of al-Qaeda towards a strictly nationalist platform with no stated ambition beyond Syria. This has created divisions among its supporters and led to the assassinations of its leaders, but the group has nonetheless survived as a major force. JaN has tried repeatedly to merge with Ahrar al-Sham before it drifts too far away, but recent talks collapsed when JaN agreed to change its name, but not to abandon its affiliation to al-Qaeda. Tensions between the two groups have risen as a result and have led to armed clashes. JaN now faces an impending split as pressure builds to relax its hard line.
The head of the HNC team at Geneva is Mohammed Alloush, the political leader of another deeply conservative Islamist group, Jaysh al-Islam (JI), which controls territory on the outskirts of Damascus. JI’s founder, Zahran Alloush, died in a Russian airstrike at the end of last year while negotiating with members of Ahrar al-Sham—again demonstrating how much the rebel groups have managed to come together. Mohammed Alloush has a reputation as a good negotiator and is a clever choice by the HNC, as it ensures that JI’s more extreme position is tempered by the views of other members of the alliance. Mohammed Alloush also maintains good relations with the authorities in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
Though Russia has signaled that it is keen to see peace talks—both by softening its position on the participation of Ahrar al-Sham and JI, which it previously described as terrorist groups, and by agreeing to stop the bombardment of civilians as called for by Security Council Resolution 2254—the continued intensity of its actions on the ground contradict this. Russia may calculate that Assad’s fortunes can rise still higher before he need negotiate, but they are just as likely to fall again before the war is over. The key objectives for all external parties must be to have rebel forces join the Syrian army in an assault on the Islamic State, and then on JaN, while a transitional process slowly works out a political settlement. But Syria has too many moving parts to make this likely soon, if ever. Under current circumstances, no amount of discussion in Geneva will lead to peace until one side or the other is prepared to concede defeat, which neither side will do. In this respect, the talks will reflect the situation on the ground rather than determine it.
One thing the talks may do is narrow the debate about who should be involved and what should be discussed. The Syrian government has reserved its position by avoiding saying which groups it considers terrorists; the opposition has demanded essential humanitarian relief for civilians, but has not refused to speak about a political settlement if that is forthcoming. Although little will come of the talks, the fact that delegations have gone to Geneva—even though some, like the excluded Kurds, have already left—is a step forward. Although the regime is in no danger and would be happy enough for the process to collapse again, it may also wish to play along and has nothing to lose by doing so. If it kept its delegation in Geneva and at the same time began its campaign to retake Palmyra from the Islamic State—a campaign that has been under preparation for some time—the Assad regime would likely improve its standing considerably with the international community, and possibly with the Syrian people as well. If it gives way to its more basic instincts and causes the talks to collapse, the misery for all Syrians will grind on.
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