TSG IntelBrief: The Current Partitioning of Syria
December 3, 2014

The Current Partitioning of Syria

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• With new reports estimating that the death toll of the Syrian civil war now exceeds 200,000, the de facto partitioning of Syria into three parts—those controlled by the Assad regime, the Islamic State, and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN)—will make it even more difficult to bring the conflict to an acceptable end

• While the Islamic State and JN remain at odds both at a leadership level and at some combat levels in Syria, it is possible the two groups will seek a détente to consolidate their holdings before pressure from the international coalition reaches an effective level

• An unofficial but effective alliance between the two groups—if focused within Syria only—could sidestep the thorny allegiance and doctrinal pan-jihadist issues that have divided the two groups, and present a somewhat unified front against both the Assad regime and the soon-to-be-formed anti-Islamic State rebel groups

• The establishment of a “safe zone” on Syria’s side of its border with Turkey could help cut down on foreign fighters and supplies flooding into the combat zones, and serve as the northern side of a vise—with a slowly improving Iraqi military on the southern side—to contain and diminish both the Islamic State and JN in Syria.

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As the Syrian civil war approaches its fourth year—with the latest reported estimates of causalities exceeding 200,000—a de facto partitioning of the country is occurring. The Islamic State is consolidating its control over parts of the south and east; rival extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) is fighting to expand control in the northwest and near Aleppo; and the regime of Bashar al-Assad is consolidating control around Damascus and along the western border. This unfortunate three-way division presents immense challenges to governments working to create and train an anti-Islamic State army among groups that would much rather fight Assad. But as challenging as the current situation is, it could get much worse if the Islamic State and JN reach even a temporary or limited détente, one that sidesteps their differences and focuses on the common threat of the increased international pressure.

It is highly unlikely, given the egos and violence involved, that the Islamic State and JN will officially merge into one group, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come to a working agreement that applies only to Syria, which is the source of their power. Both groups have well-honed survival skills, and the coming months and year in Syria will test them. As it stands now, the Islamic State and JN are by far the two most capable rebel groups holding territory in Syria. Their bases of support are similar enough to overlap in places, and could expand into one much larger base if the groups can portray themselves as the sole credible opposition to both the hated Assad regime and the hated West. A group that can draw from a common foreign jihadist pool by claiming to be the main opponent to the West while at the same time building local support by claiming to be the main opponent to Assad will be difficult for anyone to fight.

If the two groups can reach an accord that places the need for an actual jihadist victory in Syria above internecine conflicts, their fighters could cease attacking each other and begin strategic collaborations that would leverage their respective strengths. JN, despite its affiliation with al-Qaeda, is a Syrian-majority group, with deep ties to the areas in which it fights. Locals see it as the most effective force against Assad. These local supporters don’t care about the ideological split between the Islamic State and JN, nor do they much support the coalition strikes against both groups. The Islamic State remains a foreign fighter-majority group in Syria, with a powerful global appeal that continues to draw fighters into its ranks. A merging—however temporary and superficial—would in effect divide Syria into two parts: the regime-controlled part, and the Islamic State/JN part, leaving little-to-no room for moderate opposition to begin their push.

If the two groups decide to divvy up the country as best they can while leaving aside the larger issue of the global jihadist hierarchy, it could provide additional rationale for the establishment of a “safe zone” in Syria along its border with Turkey. The Islamic State, and to a lesser extent JN, has benefited from the fact that it has never been squeezed on more than one side. This allows it to ooze away from pressure like a drop of oil pushed in one direction. The establishment of a northern boundary could serve as the top edge of a vise, with a slowly improving Iraqi military serving as the southern edge, resulting in pressure the two groups have yet to experience. Such pressure might indeed force the two groups to unite. Decisions made under duress tend to be tactical and not strategic, and up until now the coalition has been forced to act tactically. The more pressure the coalition places on both groups, the less strategic the groups become, and more reactive instead of proactive. 

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