Retaking Aleppo is a major accomplishment for the Syrian regime, and in the future this victory could help it consolidate its position in the western half of the country. At present, however, the regime is too weak to re-establish its control in the eastern parts. Furthermore, the impotence of the Syrian rebels, an incoherent group to begin with, is clear by the loss of Aleppo. Beyond the Syrian regime, the Islamic State (IS) and the Kurds are the only other significant indigenous forces controlling substantial chunks of territory in Syria. Turkey could alter this balance, but it would have to increase its intervention in the country and overhaul the rebel landscape in order to do so.
- Retaking Aleppo represents a remarkable comeback; however, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad remains weak.
- The loss of Aleppo has exposed the rebels as overrated and incoherent.
- Three main players now have significant territorial holdings in Syria: the regime, IS and the Kurds.
- Until the rebels are able to revive the war against the regime, IS will be the country’s main battle.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has retaken Syria’s largest city and is reportedly in full control of Aleppo. The battle was led by the Syrian army and carried out by a task force of 10,000 fighters supported by Russia and Iran. According to The Wall Street Journal, roughly half of this task force consists of paramilitary forces, indigenous militias and foreign militias. The regime has succeeded in evicting the rebels from the eastern half of the city, and they departed in disarray. The regime now has a significant window of opportunity to strengthen its position in Aleppo as it will be quite some time before the rebels can regroup and pose a further threat.
The Current Shape of the Battlespace
The rebels still control much of the neighboring Idlib province in addition to enclaves near Damascus and areas further south along Syria’s borders with Jordan and Israel. Even so, the regime will benefit from the rebels becoming an increasingly divided and scattered phenomenon. Damascus, however, cannot overlook the fact that IS represents a significant opponent that remains ensconced in a large part of eastern Syria. While the regime celebrates what is indeed a major achievement, it faces the simultaneous embarrassment of IS forces once again taking the historic city of Palmyra.
The loss of Palmyra shows that even though the regime scored a crucial victory in Aleppo, there are limits to how far it can project its power beyond current holdings. According to the latest reports, IS has moved beyond Palmyra and laid siege to Tiyas air base despite massive pressure being brought on the jihadist regime by a U.S.-led international coalition, with airstrikes in Syria and a ground assault on Mosul. The IS’ ability to take the historic city when IS is in defensive mode underscores how difficult it will be to uproot it from its core turf.
Though IS is the regime’s primary challenger, the jihadist movement is not the only problem Damascus faces. Syria’s main Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), also represent a significant force. After being suppressed for decades by the Assad regime, the Kurds rebelled and seized control of large swaths of territory in the north, along the border with Turkey. Clashes have occurred over the years between the regime and Kurdish forces, but cooperation on the battlefield also has been reported. Overall, the Kurds have been a useful entity in that they have kept IS in check while the regime was preoccupied with rebels. The PYD-YPG also countered Turkish efforts to topple the Assad regime.
Since August, Turkey has sought to play a much bigger role in Syria than it had after its southern neighbor descended into civil war five years ago. In what Ankara has dubbed “Operation Euphrates Shield,” Turkish troops are now backing certain rebel factions with the goal of creating a corridor that would both prevent the Kurds from linking their main holding in the northeast with a smaller one in the northwest, and serve as a launch pad for a major assault on IS. While it’s not a major undertaking at this stage, this Turkish intervention corridor will likely expand as Ankara assumes a greater role in the fight against IS. The Syrian imperative is to ensure that the Turks and their allies do not reverse the gains Damascus has made against the rebels.
In a Reality Check article published last February, Geopolitical Futures showed that the Syrian state (along with the Iraqi state) has changed beyond recognition and will not return to its former status. In its place is a fluid balance of power involving the country’s three principal actors: the Assad regime, IS and the Kurds. Sunni Arab opposition rebels backed by Turkey are a fourth actor. However, this fourth force is much smaller than the others, not only because of Turkish domestic issues that constrain Ankara, but also the massive incoherence that is the rebel landscape.
The world continues to treat Syria as a sovereign state, the Syrian Arab Republic. In reality, the nation-state area of Syria consists of at least three different polities. While this complex partition of Syria represents a fluid battlespace, there are limits to how far the country can be reshaped in the foreseeable future. In order to understand how this map can change, we must consider the imperatives, capabilities and constraints of each of the conflict’s four actors, beginning with the regime.
The Syrian Regime: What’s Next After Aleppo?
The war in Syria has not unfolded as most observers expected it to. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Syrian regime has not just survived – it has staged a comeback. Of the three Arab states that have experienced a major armed insurrection and lost large amounts of territory, Syria is the only one to regain territory. A number of factors have shaped its resilience.
First and foremost, its military establishment did not fracture despite defections and losses due to attrition. The size of the armed forces has shrunk to less than half its pre-civil war strength of 300,000 personnel, but the military has survived because its officer corps has largely remained intact. Scholar and researcher Kheder Khaddour, in two separate recent assessments for the Carnegie Middle East Center, explains that the Assad regime’s efforts to entrench the army’s 12 divisions in specific territorial sectors across the country helped in this process.
In addition, the regime displayed considerable ability in mobilizing the National Defense Forces (NDF), a paramilitary organization that has done the heavy lifting during the civil war’s infantry missions. In essence, the NDF compensated for the loss of weak non-commissioned ranks that were gutted due to defections. The NDF units are better paid and, more importantly, they are raised locally. Therefore, they had greater motivation to defend their respective areas from the rebels. That said, the quality of the NDF fighters varies, with some forces being highly effective and others being ineffective.
A third auxiliary force consists of other militias that support the Syrian regime. A study by Cody Roche and Vincent Hayek, published on investigative news website Bellingcat, shows the existence of dozens of these militia groups, both Syrian and foreign. The latter are heavily composed of foreign Shiite fighters from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they have been mobilized by advisers from the overseas operations arm of Quds Force, Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Just as IS and al-Qaida are fighting for transnational causes, these pro-regime fighters from overseas are also motivated by a transnational impulse that is driven by Shiite sectarian identity.
While this three-layered force has greatly helped the Syrian regime in undermining the rebellion, it also represents an Achilles’ heel. First, this is a force that can help on the battlefield but cannot help the Syrian regime to consolidate its hold over reclaimed territories, especially ones as large as Aleppo, because these militias are not trained to administer areas. Many of the militias are foreign or Shiite Muslims. Second, it shows the inherent dependence of the Syrian regime on external militia forces, and hence its weakness – the regime’s armed forces could not have taken on the rebels alone.
Half of the task force that retook Aleppo is composed of irregulars, demonstrating that there is a limit to how much territory the regime can regain. The rebels are not a spent force, and they could regroup in the countryside outside Aleppo. If this happens, they will pose a threat to the regime’s hold on the city. Additionally, Idlib is a rebel stronghold dominated by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, the new face of Al-Qaida in Syria. This could pose a formidable challenge to the Syrian regime. While the regime currently has the upper hand, it has a long way to go before it can declare victory against the rebels.
Sunni Arab Opposition
Losing Aleppo is a major setback for the Syrian rebels. But this outcome is not surprising. The Sunni Arab opposition has from the beginning been a fragmented landscape. Throughout the war, a dizzying array of groups – most of whom subscribe to one form of Salafist jihadism or another – have continuously fragmented into smaller groups or joined different coalitions.
The rebels’ internal weaknesses and the regime’s advantage of Iranian and Russian assistance explain the rebel defeat in Aleppo. Although the rebels received no serious assistance from the United States and its European allies, they were supported by regional players Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. However, assistance is only effective to the extent that the proxy itself is a capable entity.
Just as their proxies are tied together only by the goal of toppling Assad, the patrons also have divergent interests in Syria beyond regime change and have supported different proxies. As a result, the patron countries have exacerbated the divisions within the rebel landscape. It is noteworthy that the Syrian regime has been able to marshal miscellaneous actors into a cohesive fighting force whereas those supporting the rebels have failed to assemble a coherent movement.
The internal rebel situation has gone from bad to worse. In the last few days, a major division has erupted within Ahrar al-Sham, the biggest Syrian rebel group with an estimated 20,000 fighters. This division is between pro-Turkish factions and those who want to align with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Divisions reportedly exist even within Fatah al-Sham. Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army, a much-touted moderate Syrian nationalist group of 40,000 fighters, is not the significant nationalist rebel force that it appears to be; rather, it is an umbrella term applied to numerous independent factions.
While the Syrian civil war has morphed into a regional conflict between Sunni powers and the Iran-led Shiite bloc, the significant number of Sunni Syrians (who account for at least 65 percent of all Syrians) that have remained loyal to the Assad regime has been a key but underappreciated element in the rebels’ failure. If a critical mass of Sunnis had rebelled, the Alawite-dominated regime would have fallen a long time ago. However, this didn’t happen because Sunnis constitute a majority in Syria’s civil and military bureaucracy. In a May 2015 article in the CTC Sentinel, published by the U.S. Military Academy, Chris Zambelis underscores how many Sunnis, especially those in urban areas, have remain aligned with the regime because they deem the worldview of their co-religionists as dangerous and see the regime as a guarantor of stability.
Because of their many differences, it will be a difficult process to reinvent the rebels as a single coherent movement. However, it is an imperative shared by both Tukey and the U.S., the powers that have a stake in Syria. Turkey seeks to be the rebels’ principal patron as it deals with Kurdish separatism and IS. The U.S., whose main partner on the ground against IS in Syria is the Kurdish Syria Democratic Forces, also realizes that it will need a Sunni Arab force if its effort to seize, hold and govern IS-controlled Raqqa will be successful.
If there is one group in Syria that has come close to realizing its objective, it is the Kurds. They currently control much of their envisioned Rojava (Western Kurdistan), and they exercise self-rule. They have some support from the U.S. as well because they lead the country’s only anti-IS force, the Syrian Democratic Front. The Syrian Kurds seek to exploit the fight against IS as a way to consolidate their autonomous region within whatever future Syria emerges.
Turkey stands in their way because it wants to severely curtail the extent of self-rule that the Syrian Kurds hope to enjoy. Since the Syrian Kurds have close ties with Turkey’s Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Turkey cannot allow Kurdish empowerment in Syria the way it accepted an Iraqi Kurdistan. For Turkey, the key to rolling back Syrian Kurdish ambitions is to limit the amount of territory the PYD-YPG controls. To do this, Turkey will need to greatly increase its involvement in Syria and take the lead in the fight against IS.
That said, Turkey wants to limit its own military exposure in Syria. This can only happen if it is able to raise a formidable Sunni Arab fighting force. Currently, Turkey is working with factions of the Free Syrian Army and other Islamist outfits to take the northern Syrian town of al-Bab from IS. The goal is to curb Kurdish ambitions by creating a corridor in the area encapsulated between Azaz, al-Bab, Manbij, Jarabulus and al-Rai.
In addition, seizing control of this area would create a launch pad for future Turkish-led military offensives against IS’ core turf in Raqqa. While the Turks would eventually like to unseat Assad, they realize that this is not possible anytime soon in light of the rebels’ loss of Aleppo. Therefore, while the rebels regroup in order to build pressure around Aleppo, Ankara needs to steer some of the rebels towards fighting IS and pushing back the Kurds. Until that happens, however, there won’t be much change in the scope of Syrian Kurds’ territorial holdings.
The Not-So-Weak Islamic State
While it faces a formidable force in Iraq, where it is slowly losing control of Mosul, IS appears to be in a relatively secure position in Syria. There isn’t a physical force that can successfully mount an assault on its capital in Raqqa, and IS opponents continue to disagree among themselves, making the possibility of a joint attack remote. IS has recently demonstrated that it is able to carry out offensive attacks in Syria, as evidenced by its recapture of Palmyra and its push to take the nearby T4 air base.
Between the loss of Palmyra and a fluid situation in Aleppo, the Syrian regime is not currently in a position to threaten IS. The Kurds, whose territories have the longest border with IS-held areas, are also incapable of threatening IS. Furthermore, they have little interest in expending too many resources on a mission that only offers limited purchase vis-à-vis their strategic goal of self-governance. Being wary of Turkish moves is a higher priority for the Kurds than fighting IS.
That leaves the Turks and their rebel allies as the only potential threat to IS, but we have already shown that they need quite a bit of time before they will be in a position to take on IS’ core. For now, IS must continue the difficult task of countering any moves the Turks make in al-Bab. In addition, given the proximity to Aleppo, IS could try to strike at regime forces attempting to settle in the city. This would allow IS to potentially align with some of the rebel groups that are currently in disarray. The bottom line is that while it is weakening due to losses in Iraq, IS does not yet face a serious threat to its core turf in Syria.
Pro-government forces watch buses pass during an evacuation operation of rebel fighters and their families from rebel-held neighborhoods in the embattled city of Aleppo, Syria, on Dec. 15, 2016. YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP/Getty Images
Three main actors control territory in Syria: the Assad regime, the Kurds and IS. Although they may lose or gain territory in small areas, all three remain vulnerable. Any significant change in the geography of their holdings is unlikely to occur in the near future.